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Life in Lockdown: “We are individuals, not puppets”

Nouse speaks with three student nurses studying at York on their experience of working in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Image Credit: Megan Louise-Bell

Last week the Government announced that paid student nurse contracts are to be terminated early, which has left thousands of student nurses across the country confused and angry over the decision which leaves them in financial instability. Following this announcement, Nouse contacted three student nurses from York to understand how this news has affected them, and how they have coped over the past few months working on hospital frontlines. Due to concerns of confidentiality, the nurses we spoke to will be referred to by their first names only; Emily, Lindsey and Chelsea.

Emily, who is a second year Nursing (BSc) student, initially stated that the experience of being a student nurse during the pandemic has been “interesting to say the least.” She expanded upon this, alerting us to one of the reasons she has not looked upon the experience so lightly, telling us that she “contracted COVID-19 whilst working on a ‘cold’ ward with no PPE.” She commented that “the Government said we didn’t need [PPE]” when she began work on said ward in March. Subsequently, Emily “had to stop working for a number of weeks,” and stated that she has “still not completely recovered and [has] had no sense of smell for 10 weeks.” This highlighted to us the extreme risk these students have taken in stepping up to the challenge of assisting the NHS, and thus their bravery in doing so.

She went on to comment that “many of us have volunteered to come onto the front line, putting our own wellbeing as well as family and friend’s wellbeing at risk. I know a number of student nurses who have contracted the virus and have made huge sacrifices to protect others,” which serves to further emphasise the collective sacrifice this group of students have made. Lindsey, a third year Adult Nursing (BSc) student, made it clear to us that this sacrifice was not merely a physical one, as she cites that “it has been a challenge not being able to see family and friends who are my biggest support system. This was difficult especially in the beginning entering a new role uncertain of what the extended placement entailed and the extent of the risk we were putting ourselves in.”

These students have not only risked their physical wellbeing in volunteering for the NHS, but they have also sacrificed being with their loved ones during a global crisis in order to do so. In highlighting to us their continued sacrifice, the news of the termination of their contracts becomes ever more disappointing from the Government, as it seems as though their sacrifices are being disregarded by those in power.

On the subject of the Government’s lack of support, Emily tells us that “it’s a real shame the Government has expressed their true feelings regarding student nurses and how we are not seen as providing a service.” She goes on to proudly state, however, that student nurses do “provide a hugely important role in the future of the NHS and health care sector,” and that they are “a hand to hold in the darkest of times and someone patients lean on when they are in need. Without the current student nurses, the NHS would be faced with even more staff shortages now and in future years” – something to which the Government is seemingly not recognising. Despite this lack of recognition, it is increasingly clear how crucial our student nurses are to the NHS itself and to the national fight against COVID-19.

When we asked the nurses to comment on the news of the contract terminations directly, there was a consensus of anger and disappointment amongst the three, with Emily telling us that “for the government to revoke the pay they have said they will give us is really disheartening. We have left jobs or ways of income to come and help out. I know that many individuals, including those in the government, wouldn’t work on the front line for free during a global pandemic so why would they make student nurses? They need to remember we are individuals not puppets.” Emily’s point here is crucial in unpicking the Government’s view of student nurses – a stance which seems to be viewing them as free labour to use, rather than as individuals with emotional and financial needs.

Chelsea, another third year Adult Nursing (BSc) student, also expressed to us her disappointment upon hearing the news, stating that “it’s unfair considering when they offered us options to opt into the extended placement, we were under the impression it would be a paid six-month contact. There is a lack of clarity which is stressful.” It seems as though this is not the only way in which these nurses have been financially let down by the Government, as Lindsey alerts us to the fact that “recently in the media the Government has been urged to cancel student debt accrued throughout nurse training to no avail. The September 2017 cohort was the first year to pay tuition fees, also missing out on the new incentive bursary offered to all students beginning September 2020. There has been a lot of talk and not much real action.”

With this, it is increasingly apparent that student nurses are not receiving adequate support from the Government. Therefore, we also asked as to whether they believed that the University was providing them with adequate support throughout the pandemic. Both Lindsey and Chelsea seemed to praise the University’s efforts over the past few months, with Lindsey explaining that “the University has arranged accommodation at a reduced price for those whose tenancy agreement ran out before the work contract or needed to move out due to family members being in the at-risk category.” She also states that “student nurses were given priority for the Emergency Student Support Fund, which provided financial support to students facing financial difficulty due to COVID-19.”

However, this view was not shared by Emily, who said that she has “experienced a lot of anxiety around not knowing, which has left me feeling exhausted. The University hasn't been very supportive of this anxiety and in one email that I was sent I was told my anxiety was not valid and I have little reason to be panicking. As you can imagine that email response didn’t really help with my anxiety.” Emily’s frustration over the lack of support she has received resonated, as students such as her are seemingly not receiving support from neither the Government nor their universities. Nouse contacted the University for their response to this allegation regarding a lack of support for student nurses at York, and their spokesperson told us that:

“Student nurses and midwives have had their programmes significantly disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we greatly appreciate their understanding and flexibility as plans have been altered as a result of unforeseen challenges. A great number of students opted in to an arrangement to enable them to provide vital support to the NHS during the crisis, and we appreciate that many students will require additional support - both academic and emotional -  as a result.

"We are unable to comment on individual cases but we encourage all of our student nurses and midwives to get in touch with their personal supervisor or visit our dedicated support page to ensure they are receiving the help and advice they need."

Emily’s personal lack of support makes her comments on what she has experienced during the pandemic all the more emotional. She describes to us the various issues she has faced, specifically telling us about the protective surgical masks she must wear at all times. She says that they “are uncomfortable and cause sores on noses and ears as well as making you feel really dehydrated.” Not only does Emily explain to us the physical issues her protective gear causes her, but also the, perhaps unthought of, emotional ones as well. She describes how the PPE makes contact with patients “impersonal”, devastatingly telling us how “the simple act of holding a patient’s hand during their last few days of life has changed, as there’s now the barrier of a glove between human touch.

“This is especially hard to experience as often the patient’s family cannot visit so they only have healthcare staff to interact with in person.” The aforementioned lack of support for these emotionally draining situations these nurses are enduring each day is not simply a testament to their resilience, but a message for the Government and universities to provide more support for student nurses who are dealing with these highly emotional circumstances each day.

Despite the clear lack of support from the Government, we asked the nurses as to whether they were receiving support from other students. Refreshingly, the consensus amongst them was positive. Lindsey shared that she has “seen lots of support, especially with students sharing material online, signing petitions and raising awareness - for example with the safety net, the petitions to scrap nursing debt and with more psychological support - which is appreciated.”

On a further more hopeful note, both Chelsea and Lindsey finished by stating that “we both feel very privileged to work in the NHS. Although it hasn’t been without its challenges, we believe working during the COVID-19 pandemic will make us nurses, bridging the gap between student and registered nurse.” The nurses’ statement here stands as a true example of these individuals’ determination and resilience throughout this time. This interview with only three out of the thousands of student nurses across the UK shows that these figures are truly at the heart of our NHS, and as such, deserve more recognition from both the public and the Government itself.

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