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Dublin: 14 °C Monday 25 May, 2020
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'Times are strange and we're being thrown right in': Student nurses joining the frontlines in Covid-19 crisis

Student nurses often do their work placements without pay.

Image: Shutterstock/Corrado Baratta

FROM THIS MONTH, hundreds of student nurses across the country will begin their unpaid work placements amidst the coronavirus outbreak that is putting unprecedented spotlight and pressure on our health services.

For many of them, today is the day when they begin their six-week placement but unlike the other areas of the health service where recruitment is under way in earnest, these students won’t be paid for their work.

Although this is a common practice – doing unpaid work to earn enough hours to become fully qualified – some students are calling for extra supports given the public health crisis affecting every facet of Irish society at present.

Last week, 30,000 people applied within two days last week for jobs within the HSE after a call for all those qualified from Health Minister Simon Harris at this time of national crisis.

“Your country needs you,” he said. “They’d be paid. We’re looking to hire people, and actually in many cases we’ll be offering people full-time permanent jobs, because you know when it comes to roles like doctors and nurses we need more.

We’ll be offering people contracts of at least three-months duration. And on top of that, of course, there’d be many thousands volunteering, but no, we’re in the business of hiring. We’re open for business, and the only constraint will be the availability of people, and not finances.

Across all years of university, student nurses are required to work unpaid to get the necessary number of working hours needed to become fully qualified. From 4th year onwards, these nurses receive some payment but they do complete a large chunk of their placements unpaid across their college course.

Across most universities, these placements will begin in the spring term and last for several weeks.

For trainee nurses at the likes of UCD and UCC, many of them begin their six-week work placements today at a time when the country is in the midst of the worst public health crisis in living memory.

Laura* is one of these student nurses. She told TheJournal.ie that entering the health system at a time like this “I want nothing more than to help”.

“The long hours do not bother me,” she said. “The no pay does not bother me. But now the country believes that we will be awarded a healthcare assistants wage during this pandemic. This is not the case.

[Today], I will begin working full time for nothing. I will then have to quarantine myself for two weeks after this placement. 

Laura said she understands the principles behind doing the unpaid hours to get enough to become a fully qualified and registered nurse.

But – as the health service braces itself for an onslaught of cases of Covid-19 – this is a completely unprecedented situation.

The experience of being a student varies, and many are facing vastly different situations as they gear up for their placement. Accommodation and transport are chief among their worries as they go to work in hospitals for the next few weeks.

Among Laura’s peers is a woman living with her grandmother who’s in her 80s and has COPD. Another has a baby living in the same house and another is renting with someone who doesn’t want her to stay there if she’s going to be coming and going to a hospital every day.

“Times are strange, and we are being thrown right in,” she said.

‘Advocating to protect your best interests’

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has said that students taking up roles should be paid and protected as employees, if that is the role they are undertaking.

The INMO last week set out its own key objectives for students during the coronavirus outbreak.

It included: “That training not be interrupted where possible. [That] proper supervisions continues during any training – and if interrupted for any reason which is not your fault, we will advocate for the best possible outcome.

We are advocating to protect your best interests and provide you with as much information as possible. We have posed a large number of questions to the HSE: they have responded to some and we are pursuing answers on others. We have secured a commitment from the HSE that there will be no decisions that adversely affect student nurses and midwives.

The issue was raised by Fianna Fáil Kerry TD Norma Foley who insisted last week that student nurses on work placements around the country deserve to be paid for the work they do during the Covid-19 crisis.

Foley said: “Medical staff across the country are working extremely hard and under pressurised situations during the on-going Covid-19 crisis. However, several student nurses have not had their placements suspended and are now working on the front line of this crisis.

Medical staff on the front line are doing extraordinary work in hospitals across the country and they are to be commended for their dedication. I am calling for funding to be made available to pay trainee nurses who are currently on placements in hospitals. I have written to the Minister for Health to raise the matter. They deserve to be able to focus on the job at hand and compensated for their exceptional contribution to the current crisis.

TheJournal.ie has contacted the HSE and Department of Health for comment. The HSE directed us to the Department of Health in the first instance.

No response was received form the department at time of publication. 

Names have been anonymised at the individuals’ request

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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