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Foreign health workers need border exemption, or rural communities 'suffer', says doctors' organisation

A doctors’ organisation says the Government needs to cut immigration red tape, or rural communities could “suffer and fail” because it lacked health workers. 

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NZ Rural General Practice Network CEO Grant Davidson says there aren’t enough doctors in New Zealand who can work rurally. Source: Breakfast

New Zealand Rural General Practice Network chief executive Dr Grant Davidson told TVNZ1’s Breakfast today he welcomed the Government’s decision overnight to extend work visas for overseas doctors until March next year. 

He said while health professionals were given an exemption as critical workers after the country shut its borders because of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, the original deadline for the exemption up until December 30 wasn’t enough because it took three to six months to organise a health professional’s move from overseas. 

“We need to have the visas arranged in advance. December 30, any work after that, we couldn’t get a visa,” Davidson said.

“We notified the Minister of Immigration, the Minister of Health, the Director-General [of Health] - a whole bunch of people - no action for two and a half months.” 

Davidson said about one-third of practices in rural areas had long-term vacancies it struggled to fill, and there weren’t enough doctors in New Zealand who could work rurally. 

This meant rural communities were reliant on overseas health professionals to fill shortages, at least in the short-term, he said.

“It’s not that they [local doctors] don’t want to [work rurally], it’s a special calling. People have to be passionate about living in those rural areas because it’s a 24/7 job. 

“These people are called after hours. If there’s an accident down the road, there’s no St John going to it. The doctor gets a call and off they go.”

Hundreds of thousands of people in rural communities relied on rural doctors, Davidson said.

“The doctors are their primary, secondary and often tertiary care. So, if they’re not there, those rural communities are going to suffer and fail.”

Davidson said bringing in foreign workers "isn’t as if it’s protecting Kiwi jobs” because there weren't enough doctors trained to work in rural areas in New Zealand in the first place.

He said a long-term solution would be to train doctors from rural backgrounds, who then return to those areas to work.

Immigration figures from August 10 to October 18 show about 250 overseas health workers were granted a critical purpose visa.