Australia’s peak medical body is calling for Anthony Albanese to revive national cabinet’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic, warning that this winter will be “the worst it has ever been” for the country’s overburdened health network.
Facing a deadly flu season along with the ongoing spread of Covid, the Australian Medical Association says that the country’s hospital system is already struggling to cope with surging demand as a result of workforce shortages.
The AMA’s president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said next Friday’s meeting of state and territory leaders – the first since Albanese was sworn in as prime minister – needed to come up with a new Covid strategy to try to ease the burden over winter, after the issue had largely been ignored during the election campaign.
“That needs to change. I want to get back to a situation where we have a considered, coordinated and preferably nationally consistent response to the pandemic,” Khorshid told Guardian Australia.
“The pandemic is not over and our health system is struggling, partly due to the ongoing effect of the pandemic.
“It is the worst it has ever been … and it will be worse [than last winter] because we will have flu and Covid in every state and territory," hy het gesê.
“You have also got the cumulative effect of ongoing burnout and stress at the frontend for those workers who’ve been doing the heavy lifting [in] hospitals and in primary care.
“And we haven’t actually fixed any of the problems, so there’s no extra capacity, there’s no extra staff. Nothing had been done to help the system to cope with this foreseeable increase in demand.”
Khorshid said national cabinet needed to discuss how to lift the rate of third-dose vaccinations, consider mask-wearing guidelines, refocus on workforce strategies and consider a national drive to vaccinate against the flu, which is being described as a looming disaster for the health sector.
Booster rates for third Covid vaccination doses are sitting at about 72% nationally, and are lowest in Queensland (63%) and NSW (67%). Only about 30% of the population has received a flu vaccination.
The AMA is also supporting state calls to extend a national funding agreement for hospitals that sets the commonwealth’s share of funding at 50% – the current agreement is due to expire in September.
“The impact of the Covid pandemic is absolutely still here,” Khorshid said, “and it’s going to be even worse as we go through winter, so our health system needs that extra support that’s been provided by the commonwealth and that should be extended.”
He said that not only was the increase in funding “critical” to maintain health services, but the federal government also needed to scrap the 6.5% cap on spending growth as wage rises and inflation made the cap impossible to meet and would result in real cuts to frontline care.
All states and territories are pushing for the health agreement to be extended, but Labor remained quiet on the commitment during the election campaign. Albanese said he would wait until after the election to discuss the issue with state and territory leaders.
In the final days of the campaign, Albanese also flagged that he wanted to see a new national Covid strategy aimed at reducing the impact of the disease on the community, with a focus on a new education campaign.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, has said he and the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, would be asking national cabinet to look at ways to better coordinate demand between the state-run hospital network and federally funded primary healthcare.
Amid the concern about staff shortages, Khorshid said incentives such as the Victorian government’s recently announced $3,000 retention bonus would increase wages in the sector and add to hospital costs as states began competing for the same workers.
Die Gesondheid Services Union’s national secretary, Gerard Hayes, said state and territory leaders needed to do more to address workforce issues and called for the new government to address the funding needs for health and aged care.
“The pandemic has shown us that this was a pandemic of the workforce,” Hayes said.
“We need to be able to attract and retain the best people and at the moment with the [federal] cap, we are not able to do that, so the government really needs to buy in and make that contribution.”
Without urgent reform, Khorshid said the country was facing a perfect storm over winter that would see patients dying unnecessarily as hospitals were unable to meet demand.
'[Without change] it means further burnout, carnage, chaos in the emergency departments, with patients receiving inadequate care or care that is delayed,” Khorshid said.
“We know that for a whole series of conditions, delays can mean the difference between complete recovery and permanent disability, or the difference between living and dying.
“So we will see deaths that are avoidable, we will see injury that is avoidable. We’re already seeing that right now and we know that’s going to get worse through the winter.”