The Department of Health announced that nursing and midwifery student placements for 1st to 3rd year are suspended for at least two weeks.
The decision was published on the 16th of January and took effect from the 18th.
The stated reason for the decision was to redeploy qualified nurses and midwives to support the Covid-19 response. The HSE requested the redeployment in light of the current surge in cases. The Government has stated it is an “evolving situation” which is under review, and clinical placements shall resume “as soon as possible”. The decision came after a long campaign led by students and unions to pay student nurses, midwives and radiographers for their efforts on placement during the pandemic.
Students in fourth-year will continue placement, and for rostering purposes are counted as 0.5 of a full time nurse or midwives. Fourth-year students will receive €10.70 per hour for their work. The support and education infrastructure will remain in place for these students.
Speaking on the decision, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly TD offered his thanks to student nurses and midwives for their “ongoing commitment to the future of our health service”. Donnelly acknowledged that many students will be “disappointed” by the decision and “would like to reassure them that all options will be considered in re-starting these placements as soon as it is possible”. Rachel Kenna, Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health said she recognises the “enormous commitment” students have made and described the education of nurses and midwives as a “priority for all of us” but emphasised that it “must be done safely, with the appropriate supports and supervision structures in place”.
TDs expressed their opinion on the suspension during Dáil debate on a Sinn Féin motion on Wednesday for the re-introduction of healthcare assistance rates of pay to student nurses. The Minister for Health accepted the recommendation to give €100 per week to students on placement, he also said he would like it to be backdated to September. Kathleen Funchion Sinn Féin TD described the sum of €100 as “an insult”. Richard Boyd Barret, People Before Profit TD said he “nearly choked” when he heard the Minister for Health say the suspension was in order to protect student nurses’ education. Minister of State at the Department Health, Mary Butler TD described the decision as “regrettable” but “necessary”.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), who have repeatedly campaigned for payment for student nurses and midwives during the pandemic, has again called for “fair remuneration”. The call came in light of the Collins Report, which described the situation of student nurses and midwives, coming before cabinet on Tuesday the 19th. The Collins Report heard testimony in December but INMO student representatives say the frontline situation has “changed completely” since then, with the new wave of the pandemic.
40 INMO student representatives met on Monday the 18th to discuss the suspension. The students reported feeling frustrated facing the increased uncertainty for the coming months. The students called on the Minister for Health to “return to a scheme similar to that in March”, requesting an arrangement which offers a healthcare assistant contract to students whose placement has been suspended, moving up to healthcare assistance payment rate, and increased clarity on what will happen in the near future.
Phil Ní Sheaghdha, General Secretary of INMO said “there is still time for the Minister to do the right thing” and encouraged him to “offer the students contracts as healthcare assistants to boost staffing and move up interns”. She outlined how her student members feel “left up in the air”, with “last-minute decisions” being made about their placement and “no clear plan in place for the future”. Ní Sheaghdha said the thanks students have received for their work so far “rings hollow when their reasonable demands for fair remuneration go unanswered”. She further described how interns “rightly feel abandoned”, having to continue to work for “miserly wages, facing increased workloads, huge COVID risks, and weakened support”.
Lily Muldowney, a third-year general nursing student who carried out placement from September to December expressed her views on the suspension, describing how student nurses “got through all of the first semester on placement without any consideration for protecting education, but now the government are overly concerned just when they begin to pay us?”. Muldowney described the situation as “suspicious”, but also said she “understands hospitals are under a lot of pressure and many staff nurses are being redeployed”.
Ruairí Power, Welfare Officer of UCD Student Union, outlined that “UCD Students’ Union have written to Minister Stephen Donnelly seeking clarity on a number of concerns that students have raised regarding the suspension of their clinical placement”. Power emphasised that students need “clarity” on what will be required for completion of their clinical practice hours. He also stated that the SU has called for interns to be paid the Healthcare Assistant rate, noting they are in “complete agreement” with the INMO on this issue. Power commented that the SU “understand the need to suspend clinical placements at this time upon the advice of public health officials”, however, the union has “asked if further consideration will be given to reinstating the optional scheme for 1st-3rd years as was the case in March”.
Power emphasised that “it remains the position of UCD Students’ Union that if placement is to be reinstated for 1st to 3rd year students at any point in this academic cycle, student frontline workers should be paid for their work, at a fair rate that enables them to meet their expenses”. He described the proposed €100 bursary scheme as “completely inadequate to address the core of the issue”, commenting that “these students deserve respect, recognition and adequate compensation from the Government”.