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Although history has a habit of repeating itself, it rarely does so in the space of a few months. And given that we are supposed to learn from the mistakes of history one might hope that recent mistakes might not be repeated while they are still fresh in the mind.
In this case, I am referring to communication about the arrangements for mobilising student nurses to support the NHS frontline response to coronavirus, and for what happens to the students when these placements end.
More specifically, I am talking about how both these policies were communicated to students by policy makers and the national bodies responsible for implementing them.
In both cases, only four months apart, students have been left feeling anxious and in the dark due to the way things were announced – or not – and in what order.
Let’s think back to 11 March. NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens revealed at the chief nursing officer for England’s summit that third-year undergraduates would be invited to support the NHS in managing the response to Covid-19.
His revelation was made during a question-and-answer session after his main presentation and was followed by over a week of heated debate, rumour and concern on social media – and a resounding silence from government or nursing authorities.
More detailed plans were finally outlined on the evening of 19 March in a joint statement by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the UK’s chief nursing officers, and the Council of Deans of Health.
Presumably Sir Simon had his reasons for announcing the move when and how he did – he’s a shrewd political operator – but it appeared to have caught the organisations and individuals who would be responsible for implementing it by surprise.
“It felt like a classic case of announcing a policy and then building the details in behind”
Even if the plans were not fully detailed and ready, responsible bodies should have been either briefed on the fact they might be revealed or prepared with some form of statement or draft information to communicate to students and universities.
It felt like a classic case of announcing a policy and then building the details in behind. You may recall there was a similar situation with the introduction of nursing associates, but I digress.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when students were again facing the unknown and taking to social media to vent frustration, after it was suggested that paid placements would end on 31 July.
Many students had mistakenly expected the placements to last a guaranteed six months, starting in April. As a result, the announcement led to accusations that they were being “made redundant” or “cast aside”.
Mark Radford, chief nurse at Health Education England, has this week stepped up and given some clarification on what is to happen for those on paid placements.
He has now confirmed that third-year students in placements would be paid until 31 July and, if they had met the requirements to do so, they would be able to qualify as registered nurses.
Any third-year student with additional placements hours to complete would continue to be paid under the coronavirus placement scheme until September to allow them to do this.
Second-year students on an emergency placement would be paid until 31 July and after that date “normal non-paid placements will be re-introduced along with year one students”.
However, my point is that the 31 July date emerged via different sources rather than being clearly and centrally communicated. As a result, affected students found out in dribs and drabs instead of being given the full story as soon as decisions had been made.
Of course, this is a complex situation involving a variety of stakeholders. But just like health service’s response to Covid-19, it required a coordinated response.
The absence of information, or the leaking of it in parts, will always leave a vacuum that is quickly filled by concern, anxiety, rumour and ultimately anger.
Those responsible for decisions about student nurses need to remember that the students of today are the nurses of tomorrow. The NHS desperately needs them to address the long-running nursing shortage, and generating any negative feeling is pure folly.
We need better communication on such delicate matters, and that means national bodies need to up their game. That is the lesson to learn on nurse education right now. Let’s not see this happen again.