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Prioritising nurse safety not only protects staff, but patients too

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that safe staffing and proper PPE mean better care

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that safe staffing and proper PPE mean better care

At this time of global crisis amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, international solidarity between the worlds nurses could not be more important.

Since the start of the pandemic, the ICN has been working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to advise on guidelines and advocate for the safety of nurses and other healthcare workers.

Protecting nurses as pressures escalate

Nurses went into the pandemic understaffed and under huge pressure. The demands they are now facing are pushing many to breaking point.

Working 12-hour shifts, a lack of breaks, donning and doffing uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE), and the emotional labour

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that safe staffing and proper PPE mean better care

Picture: iStock

At this time of global crisis amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, international solidarity between the world’s nurses could not be more important.

Since the start of the pandemic, the ICN has been working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to advise on guidelines and advocate for the safety of nurses and other healthcare workers.

Protecting nurses as pressures escalate

Nurses went into the pandemic understaffed and under huge pressure. The demands they are now facing are pushing many to breaking point.

Working 12-hour shifts, a lack of breaks, donning and doffing uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE), and the emotional labour of nursing are all very wearing.

Yet many governments are failing to protect their nursing staff from additional stressors, leaving them exposed to unnecessary dangers because of a lack of PPE and without enough support.

Many nurses have died, many more are experiencing distress

A recent King’s Fund report rightly says that the UK health and care workforce has been under unprecedented pressure, and we know it is the same the world over.

Healthcare systems around the world feeling the strain of fewer resources and dire nursing shortages – the UK needs a minimum 40,000 extra nurses, and worldwide the number is a staggering six million.

Our own survey of NNAs shows nurses are vulnerable during the pandemic; about one in ten of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 is among healthcare staff, the majority of whom will be nurses.

At least 1,000 nurses worldwide have died from the infection, but this figure is likely to be a gross underestimate because there is no centralised database of nurse infections and deaths.

Many countries do not recognise COVID-19 as an occupational illness and many nurses are experiencing mental distress as a result of their work. Sadly, many are subject to abuse and even violence from their communities.

The UK healthcare workforce has been under unprecedented pressure during the pandemic
Picture: iStock

Nurses’ safety is a priority for the ICN

We have been working hard to ensure that nurses are at the centre of the debate about patient safety.

The pandemic has graphically illustrated that patient safety and nurse safety are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other.

We are pleased that our evidence and lobbying behind the scenes influenced the decision for this year’s World Patient Safety Day to be focused on healthcare worker safety.

‘The pandemic and its dreadful toll have strengthened the profile of nursing in ways that we could never have imagined’

The global spotlight on the importance of the nurse safety is welcome, but guaranteeing this safety is not just about remembering it on one specific day: it needs to last a lifetime.

All of the above underlines the importance of the WHO Health Worker Safety Charter.

This charter recognises the need for safe staffing levels, zero tolerance of violence and abuse, more mental health support, and for governments to sign up to show they recognise the clear link between patient safety and the safety of healthcare staff.

The fact that UK health and social care secretary Matt Hancock signed up to the charter is encouraging. The ICN is urging other countries to follow the UK’s example.

A stronger global profile for nursing

Our unique position, based in Geneva, enables us to influence the WHO and ensure our members are privy to insights that our close contact with it provides.

And in turn, our NNAs provide us with information that we can share around the globe for the benefit of nurses everywhere.

RCN president Dame Anne Marie Rafferty recently tweeted that the college has decided to consult its members on whether it should join the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Along with my ICN colleagues, I welcome this news.

I will do my best to ensure RCN members have everything they need to make an informed decision on whether the college should join our 130-plus national nursing associations (NNAs) in the ICN.

We had hoped that the spotlight of the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and its associated events would raise the profile of nurses in 2020.

Instead, history has overtaken us, and the pandemic and its dreadful toll have strengthened the profile of nursing in ways that we could never have imagined.

The global voice of nursing is stronger than it has ever been. Never has it been more needed.


Howard Catton

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