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The nationwide lockdown is placing additional pressure on an already stretched aged-care sector in Central Otago and Upper Clutha.

Existing issues with recruitment have been compounded by a freeze on MIQ spaces due to the Covid-19 Delta outbreak, which follows already tightened restrictions on who could access them.

Visa restrictions are placing pressure on a sector weighed down by high staff turnover, difficulties recruiting new graduates and pay parity.

The New Zealand Aged Care Association’s most recent report shows a 33% annual turnover of registered nurses and 23% of caregivers in the sector.

Of those, 50% of registered nurses and 70% of caregivers are leaving the industry altogether.

More than one-third of the sector’s registered nurses and caregivers are on a visa.

Castlewood Nursing Home facilities manager Ian Cooney understands the struggle to attract and retain staff in the sector.

The privately owned rest-home in Alexandra has the capacity for 24 residents and requires one full-time equivalent registered nurse, ideally two, to allow for sickness and other cover.

It also has 11 healthcare assistants providing care.

Mr Cooney has held his role for 18 months and in that time the nursing home had four different nurses, including one from an Auckland temping agency at a significant cost to the business.

“We’re losing at least one staff member every two months,” he said.

“Every time you train a staff member it costs the company, it has a lot of financial implications in the business as well advertising, interviewing, training.”

Staff were working with vulnerable adults and getting the recruitment process right was key.

The perception aged care was a less desirable area of healthcare to work in was a barrier to finding qualified staff, Mr Cooney said.

“From what I’ve seen and the nurses I’ve talked to, [aged care] is not particularly seen as an attractive type of nursing.

“Lots of young nurses want to work in ED, in a fast-paced environment,” he said.

Difficulties recruiting staff led Mr Cooney to employ people from outside both the area and the sector.

This posed new problems, as staff struggled to find housing and switch visas approved for one industry to the aged-care sector.

Two of the last four people the nursing home had employed were on visas, Mr Cooney said.

Presbyterian Support Otago has three aged-care homes in Central Otago and one in Alexandra supporting up to two hundred residents and clients.

Across those homes, the organisation employed about 200 staff who were supported by 35 volunteers.

Presbyterian Support Otago chief executive officer Jo Rowe said staff recruitment and retention had been a long› standing challenge for the aged›care sector at a local and national level.

A lack of nursing graduates, combined with an exodus overseas for better pay and working conditions, was an issue, Ms Rowe said.

The aged›care sector also competed with district health boards, as pay parity was not possible under present funding arrangements, she said.

These challenges were heightened significantly during Covid-19, as the sector relied heavily on overseas trained workers.

‘‘Nurses and care workers not being able to enter the country due to a lack of MIQ placements is frustrating.’’

Providing pay parity for registered nurses in aged care to enable equal pay with DHB nurses would help ‘‘significantly’’, as would ensuring managed isolation spaces for overseas trained health workers, Ms Rowe said.

The manager of one Central Otago rest-home, who did not wish to be identified, said the sector previously relied heavily on overseas trained nurses, particularly Filipino and Indian.

‘‘The lack of MIQ spaces is a real issue — we have got nurses overseas who are ready to hand in their notice, but they can’t secure a spot in MIQ,’’ she said.

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean said staffing shortages in Central Otago rest-homes had hit a ‘‘concerning low’’.

‘‘These crucial facilities don’t have the staff they need to take on new residents, leaving a generation in Central Otago anxious and worried about their futures,’’ she said.

‘‘My biggest concern is for the elderly that require a high level of care and attention. They are being left extremely vulnerable.’’

Mrs Dean called for visa processing delays to be addressed to help alleviate the problem.

‘‘There are migrant workers already in New Zealand that could be filling these vacancies and that is what must be addressed first.’’