Over the course of this tumultuous year, the public have become more aware of the in-and-outs of the Irish healthcare system than ever before. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic highlighted a number of issues that had not previously seen major public attention. One such issue is that student nurses and midwives in first, second and third year at third-level institutions in Ireland are not being paid for their mandatory placements. This, especially in the context of a global pandemic, is simply unacceptable. The Irish government has a moral responsibility to pay these student nurses and midwives adequately for their placements.
Without our nurses, our healthcare system would completely collapse. It is an incredibly complex job that requires vocational commitment and the ability to work under immense pressure. As a country we should always consider our moral responsibilities to our nurses very carefully. Student nurses and midwives on placement are essential to the functioning of our strained healthcare system just as fully qualified staff nurses are.
“It is not hard to understand the frustration of student nurses when the government deems them to be qualified enough to be paid for their work as HCAs and deems their mandatory placements to be purely educational.”
Nursing is a highly stressful course, with students having to balance clinical placements along with academic course work. Many of these students also work as Health Care Assistants (HCA) after first year, a job which many of them are overqualified for. It is not hard to understand the frustration of student nurses when the government deems them to be qualified enough to be paid for their work as HCAs and deems their mandatory placements to be purely educational.
The refusal by the government to pay the student nurses and midwives is particularly concerning in the context the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In the last year, the HSE, and the nurses in particular, have received consistent praise from the government for getting us through this pandemic. Nurses and midwives on the front line have been asked to go above and beyond and to put themselves, and their families, at huge risk. This affects thousands of student nurses and midwives; they have been asked to place themselves at risk just like staff nurses have, but they aren’t even being paid for their vital work. In a year where the system has consistently relied on them, not paying them for this work is completely exploitative.
As a result of the ongoing pandemic, student nurses and midwives have been advised not to work outside of their assigned hospital during their placements. Many student nurses rely on part time income to pay their college fees, not to mention those who have to pay for accommodation. Worrying if they will be able to afford to pay for college is an added stress that these students should not have to face. The longer this continues, the more burnt out the students become. This is having huge repercussions on an individual level; many nurses and midwives are experiencing poor mental health and extremely high levels of stress. By not paying them, the government is effectively running the risk of many of them dropping out. This is an incredibly reckless move by the government given the shortage of nurses in the country even before the pandemic. Despite all these months of battling on the frontline, the government has put these students in a position where they simply cannot afford to stop working.
When colleges returned in September this issue was thrown back into the spotlight. This year, despite the pandemic continuing into the winter months, students were not even offered basic HCA contracts. Current Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly added insult to injury when questioned in the Dáil about this by Richard Boyd Barrett, People Before Profit TD. Donnelly admitted that they could and should be doing more for these students but also made no commitment to do so, citing his concerns over students’ education. It is clear the Minister does not understand that nursing, like most practical courses, is a science that one learns by doing. Donnelly’s suggestion that these nurses and midwives are standing around doing nothing, learning by watching, is beyond insulting.
“The meagre offer of €100 a week clearly does not reflect the level of skill and commitment employed by student nurses on placement, who are also putting themselves at risk working on the frontlines during the pandemic.”
When a motion to pay the student nurses was tabled in the Dáil on 2 December, the entire government voted it down. Minister Donnelly didn’t even bother to show up to the debate on the motion. The government’s consistent refusal to act even when prompted with a motion from the opposition bench, constitutes a lack of the most basic respect for these students. This is a complete violation of the government’s moral responsibility to frontline workers.
On 4 January, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) published a press release strongly criticising a review from the Department of Health, which had proposed a temporary grant of €100 per week for student nurses and midwives on placement. INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha wrote that “it’s time for the Minister [for Health] to do the right thing. He should pay students the healthcare assistant rate of pay – something which was done earlier in the pandemic,” which would “better reflect the work and risks students are undertaking in Covid-intensive hospitals.” The meagre offer of €100 a week clearly does not reflect the level of skill and commitment employed by student nurses on placement, who are also putting themselves at risk working on the frontlines during the pandemic.
“The very least student nurses and midwives should be able to expect from their college is public solidarity.”
Trinity’s silence on this issue has not gone unnoticed. Student nurses are still paying full fees to College, and Trinity should advocate for fair payment for their placements. As it stands these students are paying €3000 a year to work for free. The very least student nurses and midwives should be able to expect from their college is public solidarity. It is abundantly clear that both the government and College are failing to fulfil their moral responsibility to the student nurses and midwives. This kind of exploitation simply cannot be allowed to continue, especially in the context of a global pandemic. It is time that College begins amplifying the voices of Trinity’s student nurses and midwives. It is time that the government stops using empty “thank yous” and starts paying student nurses for their vital work. It is more than an issue of money; it is an issue of respect.