The Australian Commonwealth and states are currently in the process of finalising a plan to allow 2000 overseas nurses and doctors to enter the country for work, so as to ease a healthcare staffing crisis.
Melbourne and Sydney are reeling under the impact of the pandemic, with many hospitals jammed with Covid-19 patients. The health systems of other states are also under strain and the Government is looking to fly in overseas qualified healthcare professionals over the next 6 months, as reinforcements to support the Australian healthcare system in this time of crisis. These overseas professionals will be predominantly dispatched to outer suburban and regional hospitals and GP clinics.
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 this pandemic response, said Health Minister Greg Hunt. Mr Hunt had previously had to field concerns that Australia’s ‘fortress’ style approach to the pandemic had resulted in an inability to source health workers at a time of urgent need.
This airlift is likely to comprise largely of migrants from Britain, Ireland and other countries, where the nursing and medical qualifications are recognised as being on par with those in Australia. These professionals will therefore be able to start working shifts as soon as they arrive, and will not have to undergo bridging programs or tests to prove their competencies.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, was of the opinion that the state was close to the peak of the current wave. In NSW, hospital admissions have begun to decrease and the state is getting ready to ease the lockdown.
At present, the International College of Nurses estimates there is a global shortage of 5.9 million nurses. Out of these, the UK’s Royal College of Nursing has stated that there are more than 39,000 vacant nursing jobs in England alone. And with regards to Australia, the Australian College of Nursing chief executive Kylie Ward said there were more than 12,200 vacant nursing positions.
At the start of the pandemic, Australia had 337,000 registered nurses and produced about 20,000 nursing graduates every year. The country is also increasingly reliant on skilled migration to bring in experienced nurses from overseas to supplement the workforce. These expert professionals from countries like India undertake harder-to-fill jobs in regional areas and aged care.
Statistics on record at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation show that skilled migrants make up 21 percent of all newly registered nurses. The numbers are higher in Victoria, where overseas-trained doctors make up 23 percent of total doctors and 30 percent of doctors in regional areas.
Due to Covid travel restrictions, 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 percent. This was perceived to be due to the difficulty of recruiting doctors, nurses and allied health professionals from overseas while navigating border closures and quarantine arrangements. It was felt that this situation could create a longer-term problem for Australia’s healthcare.
Even though the federal government has included nursing on its list of priority occupations for skilled migrants and is offering more than 3100 special medical visas to doctors and nurses to come here to work, prospective healthcare migrants have been refused travel exemptions and visas.
This has resulted in an acute shortage of nurses in Australia’s hospital wards, GP clinics and nursing homes and also in the university and college courses. 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.
Universities like La Trobe University, Central Queensland University, and Southern Cross University claim that their programs for international nurses had been “severely disrupted” by international border closures.
Many overseas nurses had been giving up on Australia due to the strict border measures, but this situation is now about to change. Two years ago, 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.
Australia now plans to keep its doors open to overseas nurses from diverse backgrounds. Mr Hunt agreed it was important to attract healthcare workers from all parts of the world. However, he emphasized that in its urgency to attract more doctors and nurses to respond to the immediate pressures of the pandemic, Australia would never compromise on the standard of practice it required. As he said, “Safety remains, as always, the number one priority.”
Additionally, state governments are already running targeted recruitment schemes for doctors and nurses overseas. In recent news, Western Australia has offered to pay for the flights and quarantine costs of healthcare migrants. Since August, Victoria has recruited over 200 international healthcare workers.