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Pressure on public service

Thursday 31 March 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Economy, National

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Pressure on public service
(File photo) A health worker explains about the Pfizer vaccine to a teenager and his parent. PHOTO: CI NEWS

Covid-19 numbers continue to climb, putting pressure on all aspects of the public service, forcing Ministries to job share in order for the health services to keep afloat.

The latest figures from Te Marae Ora (TMO) show 138 new cases of Covid-19 in the Cook Islands on Tuesday, slightly below Monday’s peak of 169 cases. There have now been 1883 cases in the Cook Islands, of which 821 are active.

The rise in Covid-19 is putting pressure on the public service, with the Immigration office in Rarotonga closing on Tuesday due to insufficient staff.

Public Service Commissioner (PSC) Carl Hunter said the situation across all public services was incredibly fluid.

However, Hunter could confirm that there are four Heads of Ministries (HOMs), who were off-work, with two in isolation due to Covid-19, and two in New Zealand for “medical reasons”.   

Last week, there were six HOMs in isolation and one in New Zealand for medical reasons.

“The numbers of public servants infected will be constantly changing, as public servants are not only getting infected with Covid-19, but there’s also those who are not infected but are having to isolate due to a household member(s) infected with Omicron,” Hunter said.

“At the same time, there are those public servants who have been infected/isolated but who have now fulfilled the seven days quarantine and have returned to work. 

“So, while a certain Ministry may be stretched on a certain day in terms of staffing numbers, the situation may change dramatically the following day or week.”

Hunter said the PSC has been monitoring TMO closely in terms of staff numbers.  

“To ensure that TMO’s service delivery is not compromised we have encouraged/allowed public servants from those Ministries who can afford to do so to volunteer their staff to fill any staff vacuums which emerge, such as the Health Intelligence Unit or Health and Safety Officers to assist conduct Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) tests,” he said.

“As to date, this initiative has worked well in ensuring that TMO’s services continue to function in an effective manner.”    

Hunter said HOMs were prepared to mobilise and shift their staff to other Ministries.

“If a HOM alerts me to a serious staffing shortage issue and the call subsequently made by OPSC to do so. All hands-on deck, so to speak.  

“These very issues have been discussed at HOMs meetings, and there’s general acknowledgement that these are extraordinary times, so everyone needs to be innovative and working together to address emerging challenges.”

Hunter said when Omicron was detected in the Cook Islands and the infection rate began increasing steadily, his office contacted the Heads of Crown Agencies, Statutory Bodies and Ministries to encourage them to split their staffing so that, if possible, 50 per cent of them would come to work while the other 50 per cent would work from home.  

“This initiative was primarily aimed at ensuring that all the staff at any given agency/ministry are not infected simultaneously. Hedging your bets so to speak,” Hunter said.

“We also encouraged heads to ensure that those staff who were vulnerable to Covid-19 got isolated and worked from home. 

“And we continue to encourage any public servant who is feeling the symptoms to get tested immediately by a Health and Safety Officer (one in each agency/ministry) who has been trained by TMO to carry out the RAT tests. 

“So, we have taken a proactive approach in an effort to mitigate the risks of public service delivery been curtailed or stopped altogether as a result of Covid-19.”

Public health officer Dr Douglas Lush said the PSC’s approach was “eminently sensible”.

“It makes sense when you consider the large number of TMO staff in isolation or quarantine,” Lush said.

“Some of them may qualify for essential worker passes while in quarantine, but many of them won’t, and there is a lot of administration work building up, including testing.

“They need help, particularly as the number of Covid-19 cases builds up.”