COVID-19 has seen nurses around the world do what nurses always do: step up

To support them, governments must provide the protective equipment teams need, says ICN chief

Head nurse Sun Chun, left, writes the name of her colleague Li Yunmo on her protective suit at the First Hospital of Wuhan City in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province
A nurse writes her colleague’s name on her protective suit at a hospital in Wuhan  Picture: PA

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently raised the global risk level from novel Coronavirus from high to very high.

We are obviously facing a serious worldwide threat to health, with the potential for many lives to be disrupted by COVID-19 if current efforts to contain the virus are not successful.

WHO says there are encouraging signs that the rate of infection is slowing in China, but the spread of the infection to other nations means nurses are adjusting their responses as the infection emerges locally.

‘It is better to have 1,000 too many pieces of personal protective equipment than one piece too few’

Nurses are at the centre of efforts to prevent, contain and manage this health emergency, and the International Council of Nurses (ICN) is in close and constant contact with WHO to ensure the most up to date and accurate advice is readily available to nurses.

I have spoken to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus about our concerns regarding sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses working on the front line.

Watch: Howard Catton on Florence Nightingale and COVID-19



Reducing the risk for those on the front line

In truth, nurses are the front line, and he has praised nurses and acknowledged the ICN’s role in supporting them around the globe.

During the SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) outbreaks of 2002 and 2004, some nurses who provided care for affected patients died from the infection.

The tragedy of nurses dying while doing their duty is heartbreaking, and we must do everything possible to reduce the chances of it happening again.

To that end, ICN is working with its medical, pharmacist, dental and physiotherapy colleagues in the World Health Professions Alliance to urge governments and healthcare organisations to prioritise the provision of PPE, and ensure that nursing staff have sufficient breaks during and between their shifts to enable them to carry on their vital work.

It is better to have 1,000 too many pieces of PPE than one piece too few.

Look after your psychological health too

The stress and demands of unexpectedly working with large numbers of very sick people will no doubt have an effect on the psychological health of nurses.

Along with the WHO, the ICN is concerned that they get the support they need to minimise these effects.

It is a worrying time, and I know that nurses will be concerned about the unpredictability of the situation and what lies ahead.

The UK has a very robust healthcare system and we know that government preparations are well under way to mitigate the effects of the virus, while also preparing for worst-case scenarios.

The message for your patients is ‘concern, but not panic’

Nurses are the country’s most trusted profession; those who are not closely involved with patients who have the infection are using their health promotion and prevention skills to tell their patients about the importance of good hygiene in a time of epidemic.

The message we need to send is about serious concern but not panic. Reminding people who are coughing or sneezing to ‘catch it, kill it, bin it’, and repeating those old-fashioned but vital mantras about handwashing, will be a life-saver for many people.

As we face this uncertain future, our thoughts are with our colleagues around the globe who are in the middle of this very real health crisis.

‘It is humbling to see the pictures showing exhausted nurses grabbing a few moments of sleep on the floor before going back to their patients’

We don’t know if other parts of the world will soon be in a similar situation, but learning from their experiences will be vital in minimising the effects of COVID-19 if that happens.

ICN can help to do that; our international contacts mean we are able to liaise at the highest level of WHO, keep pace with global developments and disseminate information quickly through our national nursing associations.

Nursing colleagues working together in a time of crisis

In a time of crisis, nurses will do what they always do – step forward and step up wherever and whenever nursing care is required.

It is humbling to see the pictures that have come out of China and elsewhere showing exhausted nurses and other healthcare workers grabbing a few moments of sleep on the floor before going back to their patients.

Such dedication deserves recognition when this is all over. But in the meantime, we can only prepare for what is to come and provide support for our colleagues who are facing the most challenging healthcare event in most of our lifetimes.

It is traditional for ICN presidents to have a watchword when they are appointed. Current president Annette Kennedy’s is ‘together’, which could not be more appropriate.

Look after yourselves and your colleagues, because togetherness is the way forward through the uncertain times we face.

Howard Catton, chief executive of the International Council of NursesHoward Catton is chief executive of the International Council of Nurses