As New South Wales hospitals are preparing for the peak of admissions and overwhelmed intensive care units next month, the voices of those at the front of the line are strangely muted.
Often it is family members, union representatives, professional bodies and patients who provide a window into what life is like for frontline staff in NSW hospitals.
Facebook’s Facebook user is looking for posts from patients and staff about what it really is. Occasionally video comes out of patients recounting their experiences, such as where a woman described that she was in a tent for nearly eight hours before she was admitted to a Covid ward. But overall, personal accounts of life in NSW’s Covid wards are thin on the ground.
That’s because staff working in the NSW hospital system are restricted from speaking to the media.
NSW Health the code of conduct states that all staff – employees, contractors and even students working in the public hospital system – are only allowed to give official feedback on matters relating to Health NSW if permitted to do so.
They are also required to “act in a way that protects and advance the interests of NSW and the particular agency in which they work”, and they must “avoid behavior that could lead to NSW health”.
While there are whistleblower protections in the code, it requires the person disclosing to follow strict protocols, including reporting to their manager.
On top of Health NSW rules, many hospitals have additional codes about speaking to the media built into their employment contracts.
ABC and Sydney Morning Herald photographer Kate Geraghty were admitted to the Covid-19 ward at St Vincent’s hospital in central Sydney in July to meet staff and patients.
But as stress rises, and staff say “they’ve been pushed to the brink”, the media is being forced to rely on staff speaking the note.
Nine News ran a story in September, interviewing three nurses, who changed their names to protect their identities.
NSW Health has made it available to elderly intensive care doctors, nurses and psychologists in day-to-day government discussions. They described the heavy workload, but not surprisingly – with prime minister Gladys Berejiklian, and health minister Brad Hazzard, standing next to them – not straying far from the line of government that the system has endured. .
Most information about conditions in hospitals is available through unions and professional bodies.
AMA NSW president Dr Danielle McMullen, said speaking on behalf of doctors was part of her organization’s role.
“It’s important doctors have a voice and are able to raise concerns when they arise,” he said. “As the largest medical professional association representing physicians from all specialties and stages of their careers, the AMA can represent the views of our members in the media and government.”
It was paramedics who first blew the whistle on the long delay at Westmead hospital in August. The first report of ambulances waiting up to eight hours outside the emergency was on 6 August. This happened again on August 16, with members failing to take to Twitter.
The president of the Australian Paramedics Association NSW, Chris Kastelan, told Sky News on 26 August that his members had been forced to wait many hours while caring for Covid -infected patients.
“We found that we were having up to 10 paramedic crews with Covid-positive patients stuck in the emergency department for up to about six hours at a time,” he said.
This information is rarely volunteered at NSW Health press conferences.
The NSW Health spokesperson defended the government’s approach to information and restrictions on individual speakers.
“We try to be as open as possible,” they said. “We get about 100 media questions on the media team. We’re just the middlemen. Most go to the public health team or the epidemiology team to be answered and they’re in the middle of managing a pandemic.”
He said health services in the local area, specifically the regions, have been able to provide information to reporters and some hospitals have their own media teams.