Victoria has declared a “pandemic code brown” for public hospitals statewide as both COVID-19 hospitalisations and the number of staff on leave reached a record high.

The emergency code is designed to relieve pressure on hospitals and is usually reserved for disasters like bushfires or for example, when one was called during the 2016 thunderstorm asthma event.

This is the first time a system-wide code brown has been implemented.

From noon tomorrow, hospitals will have the power to cancel healthcare workers’ leave.

It will also be able to defer less urgent services like some surgeries. There is currently a statewide ban on less urgent category two and three elective surgeries. Category one surgeries are those that need to be performed within 30 days to prevent a health condition deteriorating.

Other changes health services can implement include the rapid offload of ambulance patients at emergency departments to get paramedics back on the road, and redeploying staff to work in areas of highest clinical priority.

The code brown is also intended to send a message to the community to preference other health services like GPs over hospitals when patients are not dealing with emergencies.

The measures will be implemented in all public metropolitan hospitals, and six regional ones, and will be in place for the next four to six weeks to address staff shortages.

Making the announcement at a press conference this afternoon, Deputy Premier James Merlino said there were 4067 Victorian healthcare workers on leave on Tuesday due to being exposed or infected with COVID-19.

We’ve been saying for some time that our hospital system is under extreme pressure and the risks we’re seeing now in hospitalisations are testament to that. We’ve reached a point in our health system where it’s juggling severe workforce shortages,” he said.

There are currently 1,152 people in hospital with COVID-19, which is a slight decrease from yesterday’s figure. 127 people are currently in Victorian ICUs, 43 of whom are on a ventilator.

Merlino said the hospitalisations and ICU admissions are expected to peak in the next two to four weeks. He said now was the time to act.

He also acknowledged the new challenges healthcare workers now face under the code brown.

“For health care workers, this means they might be performing different roles than usual. They might be working in different parts of the hospital on different rosters and it might mean consultation with staff about some of their leave arrangements,” he said.

“For example, a nurse or doctor who normally works in elective surgery, which has been scaled back significantly, can now be redeployed to an emergency department where the caseload is much higher.

“Our health services will have to make some hard decisions over the next few weeks to manage increasing demand and I thank every single one of them for making the tough calls necessary to help as many Victorians as they can.”

Image: Getty Images / Alexander Bogatyrev