By Mark Lynch
The decision to pay student nurses for work they do during this pandemic has been welcomed all-round, although details of how exactly the paid work will interact with the learning aspect of work placement have yet to be finalised.
After much lobbying by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), as well as student nurses and students’ unions around the country, Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that student nurses would be offered contracts as healthcare assistants with the HSE and be paid for this work for the duration of the pandemic. He said in a broadcast on his Twitter account: “Student nurses usually aren’t paid until fourth year, but because of the exceptional circumstances, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re going to offer all of our student nurses the opportunity to take a contract as a healthcare assistant and be paid for that. We’re also going to work out a way of making sure that that clinical time counts towards their education. We need to keep that link between the education and the work placement”.
Minister Harris’ decision was welcomed by the INMO, who stated, “This is a major victory for INMO student members, staff and activists”. They are, however, awaiting details of how exactly this will work, “We will now be seeking further details. In particular, the union will be clarifying the scope of the students’ practice in these roles and how it can best be integrated with their academic progression and placements”. The INMO have a designated webpage to update student nurses on their current situation, at www.inmo.ie/covidstudent.
SIN also spoke to one general nursing student in NUI Galway who “warmly welcomed” the decision. The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that there are still issues that need to be addressed, but that it represents a “brilliant and huge step forward”. “Students are now extended the protections that come along with being employees. The activism is something that NUIG Student nurses & midwives were very engaged with throughout, and it’s really delightful to see a positive and just result coming out the end of it”, they added. The student also alluded to concerns that students still have, having been granted this opportunity, including clarification on sick leave, shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE – masks, gowns, googles etc), guarantees of accommodation, and educational progress. They also expressed a hope that student nurses in their first three years of placement would continue to be paid for the work they do following this pandemic.
Despite these remaining concerns, it signals a big win for student nurses all over the country, who have been thrown into particularly deep levels of uncertainty since the outbreak of COVID-19. SIN’s anonymous source explained that their placement, due to begin on March 9th, was originally cancelled on March 6th. The students were informed that this decision would be reviewed on March 12th. On this date, they were told their placement would be further cancelled until March 30th. This decision was allegedly to be reviewed again on March 27th. However, on St. Patrick’s Day, the same day that the HSE launched a recruitment campaign for frontline staff, students were told their placement would resume on March 23rd. This placement, for first, second, and third years, would be unpaid.
The source outlined how this twist in events forced many students to make the decision themselves to withdraw from placement, due to concerns about accommodation, safety, and the health of themselves and their families. “Concern over health and safety on placement for students was, and remains, the top concern amongst us at the moment. This concern is not only for the students ourselves, but also who we live with. Healthcare staff are the most likely staff to be exposed to and to contact COVID-19. Many students had withdrawn themselves from placement over fears of inadvertently carrying the virus home and infecting at risk loved ones”. They continued, “Many students have expressed concerns over placement, as many in Ballinasloe had cancelled their accommodation and were unable to source new accommodation. To many, travelling to and from Galway city on public transport during a pandemic is unacceptable. Thus, many of these students have withdrawn from placement due to this reason”.
In a statement released exclusively to SIN on behalf of the Dean of the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at NUI Galway, Professor Timothy O’Brien, the University says students are encouraged to seek assistance and support in the relevant channels of the University if needs be. “We would urge any student to get in touch with the allocations team should they have any queries in relation to placements. Additional supports are available through the Student Counselling Service and special supports have been put in place by James McCormack, Head of Student Counselling, to provide counselling services specifically for Nursing and Midwifery students at this time. Students wishing to avail of these supports should email firstname.lastname@example.org”.