Questions over health recruits

Wednesday 14 April 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Health, National

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Questions over health recruits
Medical supplies and protective gear for hospital staff at the hospital’s Covid-19 ward. Photo: EMMANUEL SAMOGLOU. 21012218

Reports of issues with recruiting overseas health specialists to help alleviate a staffing shortage at the Ministry of Health is raising concerns over the country’s Covid-19 health preparedness in advance of a potential two-way travel bubble with New Zealand.

Members of the business community have become aware that as many as half of the cohort of potential health sector recruits from Fiji have allegedly yet to sign contracts with the ministry, casting doubts on the country’s Covid-19 health preparedness.

During a government presentation on the country’s preparations for a potential bubble with New Zealand last month, Health Secretary Bob Williams provided details of the recruitment drive.

Due to global travel and border restrictions, he said the ministry chose Fiji to source the potential recruits.

At the time, Secretary Williams said the ministry was working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration to bring in roughly 30 recruits – mostly nurses, as well as three doctors, a lab technician, radiographer, and physiotherapists.

However, there are concerns that roughly half have yet to sign contracts. Remuneration has been cited as a potential stumbling block in negotiations.

When contacted by Cook Islands News, Te Marae Ora (TMO) Ministry of Health did not confirm or deny the reports.

The ministry also did not respond to specific questions regarding the recruitment process and potential impacts on Covid-19 health preparedness.

“TMO has a robust recruitment process and applicants have a choice on whether to accept a job offer or not. The recruitment process is ongoing and will continue as such,” the ministry said in a statement to CI News.

Arranging travel for successful recruits is currently a challenge as overseas hires must undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine in New Zealand and produce two negative Covid-19 test results before arriving in the Cook Islands.

A limited allocation of spaces to Pacific Island countries in New Zealand’s quarantine facilities adds further challenges, an official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration said.

Te Tuhi Kelly, leader of the Progressive Party and public commentator, said he believed it was unlikely the recruits will arrive by Prime Minister Mark Brown’s May 1st ‘open for business’ date – a target Kelly also considers will be difficult to meet.

“I think it’s overly ambitious,” he said. “They need to push it out to June. I know businesses are suffering, but this is unprecedented.”

“We need access to proper modern and sophisticated laboratory facilities. Then there is infection prevention control mechanisms, management on a case-by-case basis for those infected and those exposed.”

“We need operational coordination support and mobilisation and logistical setup and at the same time maintaining other essential health services and systems as well as running a country on a business-as-usual status,” he said.

Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin said he was aware that roughly half of the recruits, mostly nurses, had been secured so far. “If 20 is what we got, it’s a good start,” Melvin said.

“Unless things have changed, it’s good that they’re looking for people and recruiting, which is encouraging.”

Also during the Government’s presentation to the private sector last month, Health Secretary Williams said TMO was coping with the staffing shortage by retaining existing staff who were intending to retire.

The ministry has also been able to increase its ranks through a worker rotation programme and securing several secondments from New Zealand’s Ministry of Health.

“Whether our workforce will be ready for the opening of the border when Government decides for that to happen, I’m sure we will be, given that these people arrive in country in the near future,” Williams told event attendees.