Plan to bring thousands of nurses and doctors into ‘Fortress Australia’

An interesting sidelight of this is that the immigrants will be forthcoming.  For many Brits, any opportunity to immigrate to sunny Australia will be seized

Australia will allow 2000 overseas nurses and doctors to enter the country for work under a plan being finalised by the Commonwealth and states to ease a healthcare staffing crisis.

With Melbourne and Sydney’s hospital beds jammed with COVID-19 patients and the health systems of other states also under strain, the reinforcements will be flown in over the next six months and predominantly dispatched to outer suburban and regional hospitals and GP clinics.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said doctors and nurses who had already applied to come to Australia would be able to sidestep travel restrictions to secure flights and take up critical jobs in our pandemic response.

“This will be a one-off boost to provide additional support,” Mr Hunt told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. “The Commonwealth is committed to it and the states are working constructively with us on it.”

The airlift is likely to be made up largely of migrants from Britain, Ireland and other countries where nursing and medical qualifications are recognised by regulators as being equivalent to those in Australia. This means they can start working shifts as soon as they arrive.

Details of the plan emerged as Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, expressed optimism that the state was nearing the peak of its current wave of infections and as NSW, where COVID-19 hospital admissions have begun to ease, prepares to take its first steps out of lockdown.

Concerns had previously been raised with Mr Hunt by the Australian College of Nursing and health service employers that the so-called “Fortress Australia” approach to the pandemic had isolated us from an important source of health workers at a time of urgent need.

The International College of Nurses estimates there is a global shortage of 5.9 million nurses. The UK’s Royal College of Nursing estimates there are more than 39,000 vacant nursing jobs in England alone. Australian College of Nursing chief executive Kylie Ward said there were more than 12,200 vacant nursing positions in Australia.

Australia entered the pandemic with 337,000 registered nurses and produces about 20,000 nursing graduates every year. It is also increasingly reliant on skilled migration to bring in experienced nurses to supplement the workforce and do harder-to-fill jobs in regional areas and aged care.

Figures provided by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation show that skilled migrants make up 21 per cent of all newly registered nurses. In Victoria, overseas-trained doctors make up 23 per cent of total doctors and 30 per cent of doctors in regional areas.

The Victorian Health Department estimates that since the start of the pandemic, the number of healthcare migrants joining the state’s workforce has plummeted by about 40 per cent. A department spokesperson said this was due to the difficulty of recruiting doctors, nurses and allied health professionals from overseas while navigating border closures and quarantine arrangements.

Ms Ward said this could create a longer-term problem for Australia’s healthcare. “If we don’t do something to secure our new graduates as well as keep the international pipeline, we are going to get caught in the worldwide shortage that is coming,” she said.

Despite the federal government including nursing on its list of priority occupations for skilled migrants and offering more than 3100 special medical visas to doctors and nurses to come here to work, would-be healthcare migrants have been refused travel exemptions and visas and bumped from flights.

The impact of this is being acutely felt in our hospital wards, GP clinics and nursing homes and also in the university and college courses where, until the pandemic, a steady stream of nurses from countries like India and the Philippines enrolled in three-month bridging courses to gain registration in Australia.

La Trobe University confirmed its entry program for international nurses had been “severely disrupted” by international border closures and it had no intake of students this year. 

At Central Queensland University, enrolments for its graduate certificate in nursing have fallen from 70 students last year to just three this year. Southern Cross University used to train nearly 300 international nurses a year at its Lismore campus in NSW. It currently has none enrolled.

Although this is partly due to the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia changing its entry requirements for overseas nurses, it suggests that many overseas nurses are giving up on Australia. In 2019, the Australian College of Nursing had a waiting list of 3000 people to do its course. The waiting list is now down to 300 and its current intake has just two nurses from overseas.

There is a split between the College of Nursing and the nurses’ union over the extent to which Australia should rely on overseas nurses, particularly those from poorer countries. The union argues it is unethical for Australia to draw on nurses from low-income countries facing their own shortage of healthcare workers.

“Overseas recruitment should not be the primary strategy to overcome workforce shortages in Australia or as an alternative to education and recruitment opportunities for the existing domestic workforce,” the union wrote in a recent submission to government.

The Australian College of Nursing’s Ms Ward said although Australia needed to do better to support and retain its own graduates, it should also keep its doors open to overseas nurses from diverse backgrounds.

“It is a female-dominated profession, so you are giving opportunities to women they wouldn’t otherwise get. Who are we to say no if they meet the criteria? We are part of a global system and should encourage diversity and opportunity.”

Mr Hunt agreed it was important for Australia to keep attracting healthcare workers from all parts of the world. He also said that in its urgency to attract more doctors and nurses to respond to the immediate pressures of the pandemic, Australia could not compromise on the standard of practice it required. “Safety remains, as always, the number one priority,” he said.

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