Ms Verhoeven also called on the federal government to give overseas nurses qualified to practice in Australia an exemption from travel bans, subject to the same 14-day quarantine as citizens returning from abroad.
She said there were many such nurses in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand who could help boost the COVID-19 workforce. The exemption need not apply to high-risk areas such as Italy, Iran, China and Korea, she said.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, on Friday said state and federal governments were planning to “at least triple our intensive care capacity – and even go further – if we need to”, which means sourcing ventilators for hospital ICUs and recruiting thousands of nurses.
State health departments have listed thousands of job advertisements for medical staff, including specialised critical-care nurses with the skills to ventilate COVID-19 patients, and registered nurses who can work in ICUs under supervision.
Ms Verhoeven said there were many Australian-registered, overseas-trained nurses in Australia who could fill jobs immediately but were waiting for temporary residency visa approvals, urging the government to fast-track the process.
Quotas on temporary skilled visas for healthcare workers must also be reviewed with a view to lifting restrictions to ensure enough critical staff could be deployed to regional areas, she said.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the government had been working with industry to provide more flexibility in relation to visas and conditions.
Professor Murphy on Friday said intensive care medical staff working in private hospitals, which are shutting down elective surgeries over the next few days, would “provide huge capacity” to help respond to the outbreak.
Health Services Union national secretary Lloyd Williams said if the healthcare workforce was to be quickly expanded, authorities must ensure workers – including cleaners and disability workers – received proper training and protective equipment such as masks, gloves and protective goggles.
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency is working to fast-track the registration of retired doctors and nurses who are able to assist with the coronavirus.
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Health Minister Greg Hunt this week announced the government would provide up to $1 million to the Australian College of Nursing for up to 1000 eligible nurses to upskill through an online refresher course in acute care, including COVID-19 infection control.
Ms Verhoeven welcomed the investment, saying there were “many people who maintain registration but who don’t practice and are making themselves available”.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.