Private hospital nurse Gary Murphy says it is "absolute madness" that he is at home painting his Georgetown house instead of at work preparing for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients.
Mr Murphy, the branch secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association at Lingard Private Hospital, is one of thousands of nurses in the private system who have been told to take leave or stood down in the past week after the federal government banned most elective surgery.
Health Minister Greg Hunt wrote to private operators on Monday night promising to help states prop up the industry on the proviso they retained capacity for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said on Tuesday that the government had struck a deal to underwrite private hospitals as not-for-profit entities during the crisis, but state governments are still nutting out deals with the sector.
Healthe Care, which runs Lingard, Maitland and Toronto private hospitals, sent an email to staff last week staying it was standing down "a considerable portion of our workforce ... with immediate effect" for four weeks.
The company gave staff the option of taking accrued leave for four weeks "at a maximum of half pay".
Hunter New England Health will rely on private hospitals to share the load of COVID-19 patients or take non-COVID-19 patients over the coming weeks if the public system cannot cope.
Some state governments are close to reaching agreements with private hospitals to make sure they stay open during the crisis, but NSW is still wrangling with the sector over the details of potential deals.
The Newcastle Herald reported this week that HNEH had told medical staff to prepare for up to 3840 COVID-19 hospital admissions in the district by April 22 if social distancing does not limit the virus' spread.
They were told more than 1000 of those patients could end up in intensive care beds, which normally number fewer than 100 across the HNEH district.
Meanwhile, Mr Murphy, a theatre nurse, has been told to take annual leave for four weeks.
"It's absolute madness that I'd be at home painting my house instead of training for COVID-19 preparedness," Mr Murphy said.
"I was just talking to a nurse with 25 years' experience in managing airways, and he's at home dusting his Venetian blinds.
"We are sharing online resources and trying to train as best we can at home, but there's only so much you can do."
The "overwhelming response" he had received from friends and colleagues was that they wanted to join the fight against the virus.
"It's well above my pay grade to decide who should be paying nurses. Is it the shareholders in Healthe Care? Is it the government?" he said.
"I don't know, but why the f--- are we wasting these precious days when we should be training?
"Why are we falling down in these critical hours?"
Mr Murphy said private hospitals such as Lingard could receive the non-COVID-19 surgical overflow from John Hunter Hospital, but private-system theatre nurses were more familiar with elective surgery than emergency trauma cases.
"I personally haven't had a lot of experience in, for instance, orthopaedic trauma," he said.
"I could be training up in that. There's so many things I could be doing other than scrolling on my phone. It's just madness."
A nurse at Maitland Private Hospital said she was "distraught, worried, pissed off and very, very angry" after being stood down.
"We are nurses, so we are used to giving our all to others, but in this time of need we feel we could be utilised, but we have been discarded and dismissed as just a number on the books," she said.
"We are going to be a necessary, trained, front-line asset, and we are currently not considered important enough to have a job."
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