Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the government is working to reduce the global nursing shortage’s impact on the healthcare system.

Jacinda Ardern speaks to media at Parliament's theatrettePrime Minister Jacinda Ardern. File photo Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Nearly one-in-three nursing students are dropping out before qualifying, due to financial pressure, family responsibilities and other factors made worse by Covid-19.

At the same time, health boards and rest homes are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to attract nurses from overseas to fill an estimated 4000 vacancies.

But there are forces working the other way. The New South Wales government has unveiled a $4.5 billion package to recruit more than 10,000 staff – with New Zealanders sure to be in its sights.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report the government was aware of the global shortage of nurses and would be continuing campaigns to attract people to the industry from within the country and overseas.

“I think it’d be fair to say we’ve been aware of the global shortage of nursing staff so we’ve been running our own internal campaigns to try and attract our previous qualified nurses to come back,” she said.

To attract overseas nurses to the country, the government has given those in the profession the opportunity to gain residence after working in the field for two years.

Returning nurses are also being offered a one-off payment of $5000 to cover re-registration and other costs.

However, some nurses were upset the residence status had not been offered automatically upon arrival, Ardern said the inclusion of the two-year requirement was due to concerns around staff retention at some DHBs.

“Essentially all it does is ask that you just work in the field for two years so it is recency we just ask that you stay as a nurse and one of the reasons for that is we did have raised with us by some DHBs the concern of whether of not we were retaining everyone that was coming in as a nurse.”

Ardern was unable to provide the number of nurses that had returned to or arrived in the country as a result of the residency scheme, which was announced a month ago.

“One of the things we also need to factor in is we have also increased the number of nursing staff so we do hold a lot of vacancies because we’ve also sought to create more nursing places.

“So this is one of struggles we have, we want to take some of the pressure off our hospitals by increasing those STEs at a time where everyone in recruiting,” she said.

Ardern argued the data on nursing graduate dropouts did not reflect the current situation, but said the introduction of the fees free scheme had alleviated some of the financial pressures facing students.

Meanwhile, she said targeted nursing scholarships were on offer to boost Māori and Pasifika representation in the workforce.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere for the Nurses OrganisationNurses Organisation director Kerri Nuku. File photo Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Third-year Otago Polytechnic nursing student Jade Power has been following the difficult situation from ground zero.

Power, who also chairs the national student unit of the Nurses Organisation, told Morning Report the pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic had forced many students to make tough decisions.

“With level four lockdowns, most of us couldn’t attend placements and get our hours required to sit Nursing Council state final so you had a lot of people deciding if they could continue on due to financial pressure with Covid not being able to work, only being able to study.”

She said this had particularly affected those nursing students with children or other dependents.

The solution was a simple one, Power said, pay nurses for their placement training.

“That’s a very easy answer, getting paid for placements or having fees free for our education because we work 40 hour weeks for placement, for free essentially, and then we have to work part time to live.”

Power said plenty of students were already eyeing up moves to the likes of Australia where they would be paid a more competitive rate.

However, she was aiming to stay in New Zealand and said more needed to be done to encourage others to do the same.

“We need support as well, we want to keep our New Zealand nurses here and we need to do that by paying them better and creating better and safer work environments.”