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Thousands Of Retired Health Workers Asked To Return To Work

More than 40,000 doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists across the country will be recruited to return to work, in a bid to boost the COVID-19 response.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) on Wednesday announced it will set up a new pandemic 'sub-register' that will fast-track previously registered practitioners back into the workforce from as early as next Monday.

AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher said the board was acting on the request of federal and state health ministers with an "unprecedented" move that aims to get more practitioners into the health system quickly and safely.

A similar measure has already been adopted in New Zealand and the U.K., where more than 65,000 doctors and nurses in England and Wales were asked to return to the NHS.

"We want more of our critical health practitioners available to work as part of the health system in responding to the pandemic," Fletcher said.

The sub-register aims to get more practitioners into the health system quickly and safely Image: Getty

Doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists will be added to the sub-register if they have previously held general or specialist registration and left the 'Register of practitioners' or moved to non-practising registration since the start of 2017.

Fletcher said the board will be emailing more than 40,000 practitioners who meet this criteria on Thursday. They will automatically be re-registered under the same category  -- and therefore available to work -- from next Monday unless they choose to opt out.

That includes about 4800 doctors, 2400 midwives, 3200 nurses and 2200 pharmacists and could extend to other practitioners, such as physios and radiographers, in future.

They'll remain on the register for the next 12 months.

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Fletcher said there is no obligation for anyone who is added to the sub-register to practise or remain on it, and that they can opt out at any time.

"We are going to encourage people to make their own decision about returning to practice and that anyone who is at risk, due to age or a health issue, should opt out," he said.

"Only those who are properly qualified, confident and suitable should be on the register."

The board will not re-register any practitioners who were suspended or subject to regulatory action in the past three years.

Fletcher said employers will also play a role in ensuring practitioners who choose to stay on the sub-register comply with relevant codes of conduct and professional indemnity insurance requirements within the scope of their practice.

More than 40,000 previously registered workers will be called on to help. Image: Getty

From next Monday, APHRA intends to provide each health department with the number of available practitioners in their state or territory who relevant services can then approach.

Martin said it's expected some of the returned practitioners will help to boost frontline services while others will take up non-essential work.

He said he would "only be guessing" the rate of uptake.

"This is so unprecedented. It is a similar model to the U.K. and New Zealand so over time it will be interesting to see their numbers," he said.

"Even if we only get five or 10 percent of practitioners, that's between 2000 and 4000 available to the health system and I think every bit helps."

As of Wednesday, Australia has recorded 4,860 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 20 people have died.

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Australia's coronavirus co-ordinator is preparing for infection rates among the community to peak in coming months.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said despite a continued increase in cases, the curve of the infection rate appears to be flattening.

"Rather than thinking about a peak we should be thinking about a long haul," he said on Wednesday afternoon.

Kelly said there is currently no pressure on the country's intensive care capacity, with less than 100 cases requiring that level of treatment since January.

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The federal and state governments have vowed to guarantee the viability of all 657 private hospitals in Australia, freeing up more than 30,000 beds and one third of the country's intensive care capacity.

He added capacity has increased due to non-essential surgeries being suspended and other societal restrictions leading to less cases -- such as car accidents -- ending up in ICUs.

An agreement between the private hospital sector and federal and state governments, announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday, will also free up more than 30,000 beds and one third of the country's intensive care capacity.