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Debate: Should the Government call on students to help tackl coronavirus?

The Nursing and Midwifery Council is working with the Government on potential emergency legislation that would allow third-year nursing students to help out on the frontline during coronavirus.

We ask two student nurses what they think of the idea.

YES – Josh Brand: In extreme circumstances, extreme measures must be taken.

Everyone is aware of the deficit in nurses we have in the UK – and I hope everyone knows the possible implications of coronavirus. We are faced with a potential imminent health crisis on a scale we have never seen. The NHS already has a huge deficit in the number of nurses even without the burden of coronavirus. But staff shortages could become even worse because of illness and school closures if healthcare professionals take time off to look after children.

As the virus progresses, more and more nurses will be unable to work. Yet when it was floated that student nurses might be called on to help out on the frontline during coronavirus, I saw students refusing to help because their bursary was removed in 2017, which evokes a sadness in me that I cannot explain. I have seen statements like ‘it makes a mockery of the profession’. Although, I think the proposal shows how dynamic nurses can be. Others have used the term ‘conscription’ despite the fact that students will have the right to decline the offer.

Some students will already have extensive healthcare experience prior to commencing the degree. In addition, by the time they are in their third year, all students should know to seek advice from someone senior if they are unsure. With the knowledge they have acquired in over two years of training, they should be in a position to help ensure patients are cared for. There are so many variables around this that taking a firm ‘no’ stance would misguided. It should at least be considered on an individual basis.

In an ideal situation, I would not advocate the use of student nurses in this way. However, this is not an ideal situation. Though I agree all students and newly qualified nurses should ideally receive consolidation and preceptorship, the duration of this coronavirus pandemic is not known and maintaining the number of nurses that can care patients is quickly becoming imperative. Otherwise, our health infrastructure could collapse under the weight of a massive increase in admissions and a catastrophic situation could arise. What’s more dangerous, a nurse that has finished slightly early or severely understaffed departments?

NO – Sharntay Saunders: Please don’t ask us to work before we are ready. 

For many other degrees, the chance to finish early and earn a wage probably sounds fantastic. However, speaking as a third-year student nurse, this is not the case for us. Leaving education early and not completing the course to help with coronavirus is as far away from fantastic for students as you can get. In fact, earning a wage is probably the only inviting prospect of becoming a band 5 nurse prior to being qualified. Please don’t rob us of the final months of our degree, which we have worked so hard to get to. Please don’t jeopardise our learning experience. Please don’t ask us to work before we are ready.

We have a long career ahead of us to help save the understaffed, overworked and under-resourced NHS as a registered nurse. We have had to pay thousands of pounds for this education. But most importantly, the safety of student nurses and patients must be considered. It is our role and responsibility as nurses to not put patients at harm or risk. Therefore, how can the option to remove student nurses from their study be feasible? Is this option promoting patient safety? Or is it potentially putting people at further risk and harm?

Student nurses are utilised for thousands of hours already by the NHS. The NMC requires that a specific number of hours are completed for a reason. The course’s duration of three years is for a reason. The transitional period from a student nurse to a newly qualified nurse is a thought-out and planned process, which should not be rushed, compromised or its quality sacrificed.

We are professionals. It is going to be our professional register. If we don’t speak up now, who will? The future nurses are going to shine bright – but please don’t rush them. Allow them the time that is required.