SYDNEY (AFP) - Thousands of nurses walked off the job in Australia's largest city Sydney on Tuesday (Feb 15), protesting against staff shortages and Covid-19 pandemic-related stresses and strains.
Defying a strike ban, thousands decked in scrubs and surgical masks marched to the state Parliament over what they say are intolerable conditions.
Throngs of nurses cheered, clapped and chanted their anger at persistent shortages of hospital beds, equipment and the grinding toll of this protracted crisis.
They brandished placards that read "Nurses are not coping" and "'Thank you' doesn't pay the rent" - hitting out at political leaders who they accuse of ignoring their plight.
For two years, Australia's medical workers have worked under strict Covid-19 protocols while trying to carry out day-to-day tasks and roll out an unprecedented vaccination programme.
But recent months have seen an explosion of coronavirus cases - bringing more patients and depleting the ranks as staff get sick or are forced to isolate.
"The community needs to hear the truth - current staffing levels are inadequate, unsafe and putting patients at risk," said the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives' Association.
In a statement, the New South Wales Health Department thanked nurses for working "tirelessly during the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic".
But it added that "there are more nurses and midwives in New South Wales public hospitals than at any other time in history".
Arbitration had failed to head off the strike and the Industrial Relations Commission court had ordered that the industrial action not take place.
That order was rejected, and union organisers said further strike action is being considered.
Strict border closures and aggressive testing and tracing had meant that Australia was free of Covid-19 for much of the pandemic.
But the arrival of the Omicron variant has resulted in tens of thousands of cases and dozens of deaths every day.
About 2.5 million cases have been recorded in the population of 25 million.