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ABC News
ABC News

Nurse staffing levels to be maintained at Royal Adelaide Hospital amid COVID-19 surge plan

A surge plan looked to significantly reduce nurse staffing levels by boosting reliance on students. (ABC News: Dean Faulkner)

South Australia's health department has been forced to withdraw its plans to reduce nurse staff levels at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

The COVID-19 surge plan, announced last Tuesday, looked to significantly reduce nurse staffing levels, with an increased reliance on unpaid and inexperienced students to bridge the gap.

But in an all-staff email sent yesterday, interim executive director of nursing and patient experience Donna Stevens said there was a "misunderstanding" about the nursing union's position on the changes.

Her email acknowledged that students should not be included in staffing models.

"Student nurses are a surge contribution and are not included in the staffing workforce numbers," the email states.

The admission followed lengthy discussions with the union, which said it was blindsided by the announcement and had lodged a dispute with the South Australian Employment Tribunal.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) state secretary Elizabeth Dabars said the department had incorrectly thought the union had been consulted over the plans.

"We were certainly surprised," she said.

"We had not agreed to the plans they put out.

She said the union was pleased that discussions had been productive and not required a tribunal hearing.

Associate Professor Dabars said that despite the dropping numbers of COVID-19 infections in the state, the surge plan to cut 70 to 100 nursing shifts a day at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) had already begun.

"They were not just planning to implement, they were already starting to implement it," she said.

"On one hand you have the Premier saying the surge is over … and then SA Health is implementing serious staff cuts."

Elizabeth Dabars said the plan to reduce nursing levels was in the process of being implemented. (ABC News)

The plans saw nursing levels on a 16-bed "COVID standard ward" dropping from seven nurses plus a nurse unit manager on an early shift, to five nurses plus one student.

On a late shift, nurses would have to care for almost double the number of patients, with the previous staff level of seven nurses reduced to four nurses plus a student.

On a night shift, the figure was three nurses and a student instead of four nurses.

Professor Dabars said it was unreasonable to rely on students as "unpaid labour", with the students facing a traumatic introduction to nursing.

She said she had been liaising directly with the Premier over short- and long-term plans for the health workforce.

"Successive governments have failed on workforce," Professor Dabars said.

"This predates COVID — COVID has shone an enormous light on the issue."

The backdown by SA Health means that staff levels will meet the government's obligations under the nurses' enterprise bargaining agreement.

Last month the ABC revealed signs had been placed on walls in the RAH by staff warning patients they may not get their medication on time or be washed before midday due to staffing pressures.

In a statement issued late yesterday, a spokesperson for the Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) — the branch of SA Health responsible for the RAH — said discussions with the union had been productive.

"The status of the implementation plan as articulated in the CALHN all-staff email today is accurate and our discussions with the ANMF have been productive and respectful, with further consultation to be ongoing and occur in good faith," the spokesperson said.

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