Frontline students are in the lion’s den, blindfolded

Last Thursday evening, London’s pink silence was shattered by a wave of applause. For five precious minutes, whole neighbourhoods spilled out of their homes, onto their doorsteps and balconies. We cheered on NHS and care workers who are working night and day on the frontline of a pandemic. And once the saucepan clanging, maraca shaking, tamobrine tapping sounds died away, we went back into lockdown.

Well, we did.

At the very same time, quietly, student nurses and medics were being called up to begin their careers in hospital wards. Foregoing their graduation ceremonies, future NHS workers are being pitted right now against COVID-19.

#ClapForOurCarers hasn’t gone unnoticed by students on the frontline.

Nurses in West London told London Student how thankful they were for community support. Via Snapchat, one nurse who did not want to be named said, “I felt so humbled that the whole country came together for us! Got the recognition we deserve.”

The DLR runs over a bridge. Graffiti: "Mutual Aid Now"
Mutual Aid Groups have been set up in communities across London to support vulnerable and elderly people who cannot find help elsewhere.

Nurses S. and C. echoed this thanks. But there’s more that needs to be done. S. highlighted a pressing issue: student nurses on “placement” are not being paid for their lifesaving work.

“It’s great that they appreciate us,” S. explained, “but clapping is not enough. Maybe up nurses’ pay. And students should get paid for their hard work during placement, too.”

C. went one step further, warning us that a lack of government transparency could be deadly:

“As a ‘future/pandemic nurse,’ they are clapping their hands for me to enter the lion’s den blindfolded.

“The government isn’t being transparent about what’s going on. Paramedics are forced to prioritise cases, then leave people to die in their homes from this virus.

“What’s worse is that nurses and doctors have died from the virus, and they are not telling us these things on TV. I’m sorry, but clapping hands is really nice, but it doesn’t encourage me, especially when the government doesn’t provide nurses with enough equipment when we need it, spent ten years making cuts to the NHS.”

A sign: "NHS Nightingale Hospital London"
NHS Nightingale Hospital is a temporary hospital in the ExCeL, East London.

C. does not believe that the government was prepared for this health emergency, and she’s not alone. At the end of last month, a former government scientific advisor said that the UK did not properly implement its 2018 biological security strategy. Professor Sir Ian Boyd suggested that a lack of resources is to blame.

Student nurses “should be paid”

We put these nurses’ statements to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), a nurses’ trade union and professional body. A spokesperson told London Student: “We have been clear [that] students should be paid. These are not placements!”

Responding to the news that final-year nursing students will be able to spend their last six months of study in clinical placement, Dame Donna Kinnair of the RCN said: “This must be an individual choice for students, and … they must benefit from appropriate terms and conditions, as well as appropriate support and supervision during the placements.”

On #ClapForOurCarers, Dame Donna said: “Nursing staff coming off a brutal shift will have heartened by the public support shown tonight.

“Thank you to the public for this show of support – it will continue to be needed in the weeks and months ahead.”

The ExCeL with the NHS logo in the distance.
The NHS Nightingale at the ExCeL was opened by Prince Charles via videolink last week.

Dr. Onkar Sahota AM, the Chair of the London Assembly Health Committee, also responded to students’ comments. He told us “entering clinical careers under these circumstances will be challenging professionally and psychologically.”

He continued: “That nursing students are being asked to work during the COVID-19 pandemic for free is unacceptable and does not recognise their huge contribution at this time of a national emergency…. This is not a normal work placement situation – they are working flat out and putting their lives at risk.

“We also have to remember that these students were deprived of the nursing bursaries when they started their courses.”

LondonStudent further asked what the Greater London Assembly is doing to help student nurses on placement. Sahota responded that he has previously advocated for proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers in hospital wards.

He also told us: “I will also write to the Health Secretary to raise the issue of the government providing funding to properly pay student nurses working during COVID-19 – and whilst they are at it, they should commit to bringing back the nursing bursary in full!”

Photography: Author.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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