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THOUSANDS of nurses walked out across New Zealand yesterday in the country’s first national strike by health workers for almost three decades.
Picket lines formed at hospitals across the country as almost 30,000 nurses started a 24-hour stoppage with the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) warning that staff were “overworked and underpaid, with unsafe working conditions leading to burnout and exhaustion.”
Hundreds of appointments were cancelled due to the industrial action amid warnings that hospitals are dangerously understaffed, risking patient safety.
The NZNO said nurses are “propping up the country’s health service” through unpaid overtime with the profession facing an acute staffing shortage with many leaving for Australia and other countries for better pay.
Nurses are at loggerheads with New Zealand’s Labour government who have offered pay rises of between 12.5 and 15.9 per cent over 15 months.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said the government was “very, very disappointed” that the latest offer was rejected, blaming nine years of neglect by the previous government.
He said that while he was sympathetic to the nurses’ case the government could not afford to give them a bigger rise than that already offered.
“It’s not that we’re not willing. We haven’t got the money,” he claimed.
However NZNO spokeswoman Cee Payne rejected Mr Wilson’s claim, drawing attention to the purchase of four military planes costing NZ$2.34 billion (£1.2 billion) announced by the government on Monday.
“Maybe if they only bought three?” she suggested.
Ninety-three per cent of nurses in New Zealand are women and the union warned that this is a major factor in why pay has lagged in the sector.
Speaking from the picket line at Wellington Hospital Ms Payne added: "I think it’s just such an important moment for nurses today to be able to really visibly demonstrate the invisible problem that they'’ve been dealing with for the last 10 years.
"It's about safety and safe staffing in our hospitals and the despair that they've been feeling when they can't deliver that patient care that's so important to them."
New Zealand’s chief medical officer John Tait estimated 6,000 to 8,000 procedures could be disrupted by the strike.
"We really cannot underestimate the impact of this strike," he said.
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