Mr Morrison initially announced the suspension on Wednesday morning, saying all levels of government had agreed the move was necessary to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE).
But national cabinet decided to extend the deadline until April 1 after Health Minister Greg Hunt met with the private hospital sector that afternoon.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the position of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, upon whose advice the cancellation was based, remained that “we have a shortage of PPE” and must boost supply while decreasing demand “by whatever way we can”.
“If our healthcare workers are not able to do their duties sufficiently, then they are not there to help all of us when we get sick,” Professor Kelly said on Thursday.
Catholic Health Australia (CHA), a major operator of private hospitals, said the deal would enable its hospitals to remain “viable and ready to deal with the coronavirus threat” by ensuring they could maintain “full capacity” staffing.
“The move [to cancel non-urgent elective surgeries] would have forced some hospitals to furlough services and stand down staff just as the health sector prepares for the expected surge in COVID-19 cases,” CHA said in a statement.
Australian Society of Anaesthetists president Suzi Nou said the decision to allow private hospitals to continue performing non-urgent elective surgeries made “little sense”.
The colleges of obstetricians and gynaecologists, ophthalmologists and intensive care medicine said the reversal was “inconsistent with advice from leading medical experts and clearly increases the risk to patients and healthcare workers”.
A federal government spokesman said in a statement the national cabinet was “focused on saving lives and saving livelihoods” and the change would “allow greater transition for the community to the new arrangements”.
Dr Sparnon said PPE, including masks, gowns, gloves and goggles, was “in very short supply” and he feared for surgeons, nurses, hospital cleaners and admissions staff who might be exposed to infectious patients.
“This is their argument, that they have to make money … I think it’s disgraceful,” he said.
He said private hospitals were using precious masks for “operations where the patients are going to be in hospital for many days, we know up to 10 per cent will have complications, they’ll need to go to intensive care in some cases”.
Mr Hunt on Wednesday night said the government would guarantee private hospitals’ viability for the next six months in a yet-to-be agreed deal aimed at maintaining the private sector’s capacity to help treat coronavirus patients.
Australian Private Hospitals Association chief executive Michael Roff said in a statement: “We continue to negotiate with government on the detail of the viability guarantee.”
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Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.