As a new variant of coronavirus appeared within WA’s hotel quarantine system, questions around the state’s ability to respond to a potential outbreak have continued to mount.
- WA reported four consecutive months of record ambulance wait times
- There are concerns about the health system’s preparedness for an outbreak
- Premier Mark McGowan is adamant the system can cope
The fast-spreading mutant strain of coronavirus that originated in the UK has been discovered in three people in the state’s hotel quarantine system.
Premier Mark McGowan revealed the discovery yesterday, saying it served as a reminder the state was “not out of the woods” when it came to COVID-19.
“It’s insidious, it’s out there, it’s causing havoc around the world,” he said.
It came as questions persisted over whether the state’s health system was prepared to cope with a potential outbreak, with record-high ambulance ramping continuing.
WA has reported four consecutive months of record ambulance waiting times, rising to an all-time high of nearly 4,000 hours in December.
COVID-19 measures caused ‘slowdown’: McGowan
The Premier remained adamant the health sector was “well prepared” for an outbreak.
Mr McGowan attributed the ramping increase to several effects of the pandemic, including catching up on elective surgery — which was put on hold for three months — plus an enhanced hospital cleaning regime, the emergency department being split into two steams of “respiratory” and “non-respiratory” and an “extraordinary increase in mental health presentations”.
“All of these things have combined [and] COVID has caused grief across our health system over the course of the last year,” he said.
“Obviously there’s many things we’ve had to do in terms of the operations of our hospitals to cope with [COVID-19] that it caused some disruption and some slowdown in processes, but that’s unavoidable and hospitals all over the world have had to deal with it.”
Mr McGowan said the Government was doing “everything it could” to improve ramping hours, including introducing 77 new emergency department beds across the state.
A Department of Health spokesperson said the system provided “world class healthcare” and that “life-threatening illness and major trauma are always attended to immediately”.
“2020 was a particularly challenging year for the health system which prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and managed staffing challenges in the wake of closed global and interstate borders — whilst experiencing increased demand for emergency care and a particularly high increase in the number of mental health presentations,” the spokesperson said.
‘Very much behind the eight ball’: AMA
Those at the coalface argued a very different stance on the system’s COVID-19 preparedness.
“We can’t cope with a COVID outbreak, we have no capacity within our hospital system to do so,” Australian Medical Association (AMA) WA president Dr Andrew Miller said.
“We’re very much behind the eight ball. We cannot afford to have COVID hitting our community and from there hitting our hospitals, so we have no confidence at all that our system can cope because it’s not coping at the moment.”
Dr Miller said 400 or more hospital beds were needed across the public health sector immediately.
The medical director of St John WA, the state’s ambulance provider, said paramedics normally took the patients into hospital corridors to care for them during their wait time.
“It’s now a large part of their job every day.
“And I think it’s a hard place to be. I don’t think it’s particularly safe, it’s far from ideal for our patients, and it’s fairly relentless for our staff.”
Dr Bailey believed “things would change dramatically” within the system if there was an outbreak, similar to a drop-off in ambulance call outs seen last April.
“But I am troubled about the current state of ramping and how we provide business every day,” he explained.
The State Opposition had raised its concerns about the growing wait time for months, saying the Government could not just blame the pandemic because ramping hours had risen steadily since 2017.
“Ambulance ramping is the canary in the coal mine that points to a much bigger problem that’s happening within our state’s health system,” WA Liberal leader Zak Kirkup said.
“We need to see a far more rapid response to deal with this, because West Australians’ lives are being put at risk.”