‘We’ve been the sacrificial lambs’: Student nurses say they’re at risk on placements

They are being left without adequate PPE even though they are working in high risk areas

Student nurses currently working on placements in hospitals have said they have felt vulnerable and left out in the cold, despite their efforts against the coronavirus pandemic, telling The Tab they feel like “sacrificial lambs”.

As well poor conditions during their placements, they’re angry at the lack of protections afforded to them. In September their placements stopped being paid and as a result of being unpaid staff, will not automatically receive a £60,000 payment if they die from Covid, and are only considered on a case by case basis under the NHS and Social Care Coronavirus Life Assurance Scheme

Only recently has the Nursing and Midwifery Council announced it would bring back some emergency standards, such as giving local governments the ability to pay final year students on placement, and giving first year students the option to move to completely to academic or online learning.

However students nurses tell The Tab these measures are not enough and do not go far enough to protect them.

‘We face the same the same risks as full time nurses’

Carly* is a student nurse in her second year of study. She recalls facing the same risks as fully qualified nurses, while on placements during the pandemic, “especially on intense wards, where you take on your own patients.”

When the students start on a ward, they’re given an adjustment period of a couple of weeks and then expected to work and operate just like a full-time nurse; supervising patient care, giving medication, conducting examinations and working shifts day or night. Yet they aren’t given the same protections – despite facing the same challenges and risks.

‘We don’t always get the same level of PPE’

Sienna*, a student nurse at Southampton Uni, says they’re facing the “same dangers, if not sometimes more” as fully qualified, paid staff. Sienna also claims that students on placements “don’t always get the same level of PPE and protection that full time staff get”.

“Students are not fit tested for FFP3 masks” – high level respirator masks – “required to be worn during aerosol generating procedures, and for around 8 hours post procedure,” Sienna says.

Sienna told The Tab that students “can be in high risk areas” and used during the aftercare “where aerosols could still be present in the air”. Furthermore, the lack of clarity on what protections student nurses specifically receive has left some students worried they are “ruled out of policies that protect us and in some extreme cases even resuscitated”.

The University of Southampton told The Tab students have access to the same levels of PPE as employed staff “if they are undertaking the tasks that require it. Our student nurses are training to be registered professionals and are provided with the skills to raise a concern if they witness unsafe practice.

“We are currently not aware of students who aren’t receiving appropriate PPE or access to NHS testing but we’re happy to look into this to ensure that this expectation is being met.”

‘We’ve been the sacrificial lambs since this began and have been told not to speak out’

The lack of support and clarity has left students like Sienna “scared and frustrated” and feeling as if they’ve “not been listened to when raising concerns for our safety”.

Furthermore, Sienna says students have been “told not to speak out by the university and unions like the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) who are meant to be advocating on our behalf, because it could damage our career before we ever become registered”.

For this reason, Sienna would only speak out about the conditions on placement with the condition of anonymity. The other nurses who spoke to The Tab were also too worried about the consequences of speaking out to publicly reveal their identities.

The University of Southampton told The Tab it is “not aware of any conditions placed on our students encouraging or directing them not to talk about their experiences and worries.”

The uni added it has “both formal and informal mechanisms” for students to bring up concerns. and “applauds students who have the moral courage and insight to raise concerns so that any conditions that are not as we would want them to be can be improved.”

The RCN has not responded to The Tab’s request for comment.

Students nurses are feeling that they’ve “been the sacrificial lambs of the unis, the government and the NHS” since the start of this pandemic, Sienna says.

‘I am at equal risk as to those who are fully trained working with me’

During the first wave of the pandemic last year students had choice: opt out of hospital placements, or join the NHS under paid contracts. This meant they were covered by The NHS and Social Care Coronavirus Life Assurance Scheme, set up in response to the extra risk and dangers front line workers are facing during the pandemic. Families are offered £60,000 if an NHS or social care worker dies from Covid if contracted from work.

However in September, when the pressure on the health service had first eased, paid contracts ended, leaving student nurses uncovered.

Eloise* is studying adult nursing and is “worried” about not being automatically covered by the NHS Life Assurance Scheme, “especially if things get worse”. As of today (22nd January), there are over 40,000 daily new cases, compared to just under 4,800 during the summer peak last year, when student nurses were covered by paid contracts.

Despite being “at equal risk as to those who are fully trained working with me”, in the case of death in service, Eloise’s colleagues would be offered £60,000 automatically, but Eloise – just because she is an unpaid nurse – would have to have her case considered by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Tab: “Whilst the NHS and Social Care Life Assurance Scheme is designed to cover employed staff, we are clear students on placement will be treated in the same way as other staff working on the frontline.”

*All names have been change in order to protect their identities

Related articles recommended by this writer:

• ‘My entire life’s on hold’: Six months on, 2020 grads are still struggling to find jobs

• Students working on the pandemic frontlines are getting their vaccines

• Russell Group chief exec says Zoom uni is ‘different but not second best’