By Daniel Gaffney
Student nurses who joined the NHS frontline in England months before their training ended in order to join the fight against Covid-19, have voiced anger after the government terminated their contracts earlier than first promised.
As nursing unions called on the government to offer clarity for those affected, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told parliament that student nurses who joined the frontline six months ago as part of the coronavirus effort were seeing their paid placement schemes terminated early, leaving them with no income.
“Surely this is no way to treat student nursing staff,” he told the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
The government took the decision to terminate student nurse contracts earlier than expected, because they claim that the pandemic is under control, and the NHS was never anywhere near capacity. This has been cited as a success.
However, the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed, because the government was late in introducing testing and tracing. Throughout the pandemic, ministers and PR officials alike have written a rhetoric of Britain facing an ‘invisible enemy’. But treating Covid-19 as a threat that you can’t see is just the problem. Throughout the pandemic, lockdown rules have been flouted because – for many – there has been little awareness of the threat of coronavirus because without testing, a lot of people think they had it but will never know. And thus the NHS remained relatively empty.
Hancock, who announced in March that up to 18,700 final-year student nurses “will move to the frontline” to aid health service staff during the Covid-19 crisis, responded by saying it was “wrong to suggest that student nurse and midwives are being made redundant”.
“All student nurses and midwives are required to complete placements during their training,” he added.
“As part of the response to Covid-19 these hours are being paid and will be until the end of the summer. NHS England has been provided with the funding for student salaries as part of our response to Covid-19 and the chief nurse has taken that forward.”
The chief nurse of Health Education England, Mark Radford, told student nurses in a statement that it had always been made clear to students who opted into the paid placements that the arrangements would need to come to an end at an appropriate point so that students could return to complete their registered nursing qualifications as quickly as possible and permanently enter the NHS workforce .
It is understood that in at least some cases, student nurses who had been expecting their work to end in July have been told that their contracts will come to an end in June.
Among student nurses who expressed their anger on social media, one said: “Some of us left jobs for this. Many of us have children and families to care for. All of us will come out with a debt succeeding £30,000 for doing a degree we have such passion for.”
Mike Adams, the director for England at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “We urge Health Education England and the NHS in England to offer some clarity for students about the way forward.
“The vital work student nurses have been doing throughout the pandemic has demonstrated the huge contribution nursing undergraduates make to our health and care services. The commitments they made should be honoured during any transition back to established programme structures.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “By the end of July most final year students can qualify as registered nurses and start full time work, increasing their pay. Those with hours to complete will be paid until September. Second year students will return to complete their qualifications so they can qualify as quickly as possible, which has always been the plan.”
But the move comes as a slap in the face to student nurses and the NHS as a whole because, only weeks ago, Britain was standing on it‘s doorsteps applauding carers on the frontline. Yet before lockdown has even been lifted, and as China and Europe face second waves, the government has shown a lack of gratitude by throwing student nurses under the bus.