Student nurses and midwives deserve more than a round of applause

Emily Clarke

Among all of our incredible frontline workers throughout this pandemic are student nurses and midwives who have worked tirelessly to provide care to those who need it the most.

On several occasions we have stood on our doorsteps and applauded the frontline workers, as they deserved it. Now student nurses and midwives need and deserve to be paid, not a round of applause.

On December 2nd, the Government voted against paying student healthcare workers €14 per hour. This came with great backlash as Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Green Party were criticised in the Dail for refusing to pay students for their work on the frontline.

Deputy Donnchadh O Laoghaire criticised the Government’s decision, claiming that applause and “lip service” is not enough for student nurses to live off of.

“Lip service and applause does not put food on the table, clothe a family or pay the rent,” he said, “we can call them heroes and thank them for all the wonderful work they do. Unless progress is made on these issues, however, then they are entitled to feel aggrieved.”

Mick Barry, Solidarity People Before Profit TD, said that they were treating the 4,000 student nurses as “skivvies” and that paying them now could soon cost the State money.

Ciaran Mac an tSaoir, an Irish nursing student, has worked throughout the pandemic and said the shortages of nursing staff has “exacerbated” since Covid-19 emerged, describing the work as “emotionally laborious”.

He explained that student nurses being able to step in is what is holding a lot of wards together.

“At the minute there are [around] 1,200 nursing and midwifery staff out sick with Covid-19,” he said, “it’s kind of really highlighted, and made worse, the staffing levels and is leading to us being put in an exploited position a lot more commonly than previously.”

Working full-time while also being assessed has put students under an enormous amount of stress, a pressure that has only worsened under their current working conditions.

“You’re waking up and you know that you’re going to an acute hospital where not only you can’t socially distance from staff or from patients, you’re going into a place where these close contacts are significantly riskier,” said Mac an tSaoir.

“The emotional labour that you undertake when you’re caring for sick people, people at the end of their life, people with life changing illnesses and injuries, it’s very real,” he added, “then to be told that all that work you’ve been doing, the emotional labour, the physical labour isn’t even worth a travel allowance.”

Mac an tSaoir, originally from Dublin, is studying in the west of Ireland. Due to the risk, he had to move out of his grandmother’s house as he would be putting her health at threat. He is now back in Dublin for the first time in four months as he had to cut off close contact with his family.

“There’s an extra sense of stress from it and the financial strain that comes along from not being able to have a job because of Covid, and then on top of that you’re isolated from your peer support groups because you want to protect those that are closest to you and you want to protect those that you love… yeah it’s not great.”

Barry explained that one in six Covid-19 cases are healthcare workers, making this the most dangerous job in Ireland in 2020. He said: “thousands of people without whose toil the health service would collapse, are paid nothing.”

He also claimed that by failing to pay the nurses, a majority of whom are women, the State were engaging in gender inequality.

Mac an tSaoir agreed with this statement as he explains that in a class of 71, he is one of two male student nurses. He said it’s hard not to assume that gender inequality plays a part in this when you take into consideration the vast majority of women in the nursing and midwifery sector.

Students are given a weekly allowance of €50, which many use to help cover the cost of transport and accommodation. To prevent the spread of the virus, the students are not allowed to take on a second job outside of their hospital.

Upon hearing the Government’s decision, Mac on tSaoir said he “wasn’t surprised” and that nobody was surprised by it. He described feeling “furious, betrayed and a bit gaslit” as many TDs and even the Taoiseach have been praising them throughout the pandemic.

“For them to even try and mention that this is done in the best interest of the students, it’s absolutely not. They’re just trying to spin it so that it seems like we’re in the wrong to be asking for this,” he said.

In March of this year, Minister Simon Harris said in a statement that student nurses will be offered a contract as a Healthcare Assistant and be paid for their work at €14 an hour, saying he “will do everything I can to support them.” However, this has since been terminated.

Barry made three suggestions that the State could take to support the students, saying that there is “no shortage of options”. He recommended reinstating paying student nurses at the healthcare assistant rate; to set up a student nurses midwives bursary and; abolish student fees of €3000 to €7500.

Mac an tSaoir says: “you have this paper platitude that is so thin that when there’s a little bit of rain it rips away and you get to see what they really are. That’s what that vote was, this is the revealing factor of what they are like.”

Emily Clarke

Image credit: Irish Examiner