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Thousands of nurses in NSW public hospitals will go on strike, as frustrations over understaffing, pay and working conditions prompt the first industrial action in almost a decade.

Though votes are still underway in some branches, the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) says a majority have endorsed the industrial action.

The union, which represents 48,000 nurses across the state’s public hospitals, says nurses will take part in a statewide strike for up to 24 hours on Tuesday, while skeleton staff will remain to care for the critically ill and preserve life.

“We don’t recommend industrial action lightly, especially when a pandemic is still underway, but the status quo can’t continue,” NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes said on Wednesday.

“We can’t return to pre-COVID-19 staffing levels when we were already in crisis.”

Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital is considering a full-day strike, while nurses at Westmead and Cumberland hospitals will likely strike for 12 hours.

ICU nurses from Westmead Hospital protest, demanding the government address staffing levels. Image: NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association

The strike on February 15 will also coincide with widespread rallies across the state, with locations including Newcastle, Tamworth, Bathurst, Bega and Lismore.

It is the first statewide protest since 2013, as hospitals remain on high alert during the pandemic and face staff furloughs as their COVID-19 patient load stays high.

The union is primarily asking that the government follow in the steps of Queensland and Victoria by implementing nursing and midwifing staffing ratios.

“If the premier wants a well-staffed, well trained and resilient nursing and midwifery workforce in the public health system, then he must act now and implement shift by shift ratios across NSW,” Mr Holmes said.

The union is also asking for a fair pay rise, higher than the 2.5 percent offered by the government, as well as for COVID-19 workers’ compensation to remain unchanged.

The latter demand comes as the government seeks to scrap an automatic presumption under workers’ compensation rules that essential workers were infected with the virus at work.

If the assumption is successfully removed, doctors, nurses, paramedics, teachers, supermarket workers and other essential workers will need to prove they caught COVID-19 at work, which unions say is virtually impossible.

Image: NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association

This article first appeared on OverSixty.