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COVID-19: the love being shown to nurses needs to translate into action for the future

After the applause quietens, nurses must be assured they will always be equipped to do their job

People in Erith, Kent take part in shared applause to honour NHS staff during the COVID-19 crisis. Picture: Alamy

People in the UK came out of their houses to applaud and cheer NHS staff last week. The same thing has happened here in Switzerland where I live, and in Italy, Spain and elsewhere.  

All around the world people are isolating themselves and keeping their distance, but these public displays of affection for nurses and other healthcare staff are bringing communities together. 

It is heartening to see this happening as the COVID-19 storm continues.  

Coronavirus crisis has highlighted the debt we all owe to nurses

Nurses won’t forget moments like that, and it is my fervent hope that the public and governments worldwide will not forget the debt they owe to nurses, who are literally putting their lives on the line to save others. 

As the pandemic takes hold and countries move through the different phases, it is becoming apparent there are a number of priorities on which governments and societies must focus. 

Most urgent of all is the supply of appropriate, high-quality personal protective equipment and the training that needs to go with it for nurses on the front line. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) has heard from colleagues in Italy and elsewhere who have said they feel they are being sent into battle without the weapons and armour needed for a fair fight. That cannot be allowed to go on. 

Testing and tracking of infection among healthcare staff needs to improve

The emotional and psychological burden on nurses working long hours with such sick people, and seeing so many patients die as well as being unable to get home to see their families, is taking its toll. The ICN knows nurses are working for weeks on end without a day off to recuperate. This is unsustainable. Nurses need proper breaks and time off, and they need mental health and well-being support now, and throughout this crisis. 

We need a comprehensive surveillance system to identify, track and investigate health worker infections so that those who should not be at work stay away, and those who can return do so as soon as possible. 

FREE – read our COVID-19 resources

Governments and health systems need to design and implement comprehensive strategies to control and respond to COVID-19. Nurses in our national nursing associations and chief nursing officers are repositories of vast amounts of knowledge, expertise and experience: they must be included in policy-making at the highest level.  

‘Nurses are being sent into battle without the weapons and armour needed for a fair fight’

The public recognises the value of nursing, but people also need to do their bit to stop the infection spreading. Some countries are introducing draconian measures, such as strict lockdowns and curfews, while others are relying on the public to take responsibility for behaviour change. The extent of adherence to the two-metre rule will determine the success of the public health messages being sent out. 

Social distancing in operation in Settle, North Yorkshire, as the two-metre rule is widely adopted. Picture: Alamy

Nurse regulation standards must not slip as the register expands to cope with the crisis

Many countries are understandably calling for a rapid expansion of the number of registered nurses, and it is gratifying to see retired nurses coming back into practice in this time of dire need. But we must remember that the purpose of nurse regulation and registration is the protection of the public, and any such expansion must be done strategically and with the safety of the public in mind.   

The lessons we learn from this pandemic will shape the future of healthcare for decades to come. Contingency planning will come to the fore and preparedness will be seen as essential, rather than something that might be 'nice to have' if economic conditions allow. 

With all the terrible news and the tragically large numbers of deaths, it is easy to forget that most people who have COVID-19 make a full recovery after a short illness.  

Whatever the future holds, nurses have proved their worth over and over during this crisis, and 2020 – the international year of the nurse and midwife – will be remembered as the year the world called for help, and nurses stepped up to the mark.  

Thank you all for your contribution in these difficult times: because of your efforts many people will be able to go back to their loved ones and carry on living their lives.  

Howard Catton is chief executive of the International Council of Nurses