Nursing studies

COVID-19: students are ready to support the nursing workforce – with your help

Final-year students like me are preparing to move from their front rooms to the front line of the COVID-19 crisis

A nursing student helping a patient on a hospital ward
Many final-year students will be given the option to finish their courses with an extended,
paid placement  Picture: Neil O'Connor

I write this during a strange period of limbo.

As a final-year children’s nursing student, I should be starting a 14-week management placement, polishing my clinical skills and decision-making abilities with dedicated support from a sign-off mentor.

But the unprecedented public health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic means I am sitting in my living room instead.

I am waiting for details of a final placement allocation that could allow me to join the COVID-19 emergency register and enter clinical practice much sooner than expected.

What is the COVID-19 emergency register?

The emergency register is part of the Coronavirus Act 2020, new legislation that, among other things, allows the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to give temporary registration to nurses who have left practice in the past three years, as well as to willing and eligible final-year nursing students.

Under emergency measures approved by the NMC, final-year students with less than six months left on their undergraduate programmes will have the option to finish their courses on paid, extended clinical placements – without supernumerary status – to support the nursing workforce during the COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID-19 support guide and remuneration for students

A student support guide – issued on 27 March by Health Education England, in partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement – sets out the details and the position for nursing students in the first and second years of study and those in the early stages of their third year.

The pay rates for nursing students on extended placements and for those who also join the emergency register will be decided by UK governments. Scotland, Northern Ireland and England have already confirmed students will be paid initially at band 4.

An opportunity to join the workforce

Final-year nursing students like me, who would have been completing management placements, are being offered the opportunity to join the workforce. As an elected student representative, I am in contact with students at my university who are affected by this; many are excited and feel prepared to contribute their talent, skills and knowledge.

They are grateful for the prospect of being paid while working in the capacity of a nursing student.

At some point, however, they may be deemed competent to join the emergency register. Students will only go on the register once they have been assessed as competent. This will likely involve continuous assessment and development of competencies before a final 'sign off' of competence, but we don't yet know exactly how this will take place.

So if, like me, you have 14 weeks of your course left, you could potentially be on the emergency register sooner than that. Although this is optional, it is a concern for some students as once competent and registered, we will also be accountable.

The fear of losing your pin before you’ve even got it

Having revised thoroughly for my now cancelled final exam, I can explain the scope of a nurse’s accountability, its basis in UK law and the ethical and professional implications of accountable practice.

But as one panicked student said to me: ‘I’m going to lose my pin before I’ve even got it.’

‘We are ready to put our worries aside and do our best to support our NHS. This is what we have been trained to do.’

Fear of making mistakes is nothing new for newly qualified nurses, and even for nurses with years of experience. Many registered nurses will tell you that although this fear diminishes over time and with increasing confidence, it never goes away completely.

Under normal circumstances, final-year students on their management placement are supported to develop their autonomy and confidence and reduce this fear. It is vital that students undertaking extended clinical placements during the COVID-19 pandemic receive the necessary support.

A hurried transition from student to staff nurse

Taking up your first post as a newly qualified nurse is rewarding, but the transition from student to staff nurse is a well-recognised challenge. The minefield of potential pitfalls includes lack of confidence, workplace incivility, intergenerational conflict, workloads and staffing pressures.

Now, we also have COVID-19. This is a strange and worrying time for everyone in the healthcare sector and beyond; we are worried for ourselves, our children, our families and friends, and just like the rest of the UK and across the globe, we are concerned about our finances, childcare arrangements and sick relatives.

But many nursing students are ready to put their worries aside and do their best to support our NHS. This is what we have been trained to do.

With the support of experienced teams, nursing students can do this

To experienced nursing staff worried about working with students, I understand your concerns – you are worried about delegating care to us, the mistakes we might make, and the amount of time that might be required to support us. 

Patient safety must come first, and putting nursing students in positions of accountability earlier than expected has ramifications. But with support and guidance from the wonderful and experienced nursing teams out there, we can do this.

This is an opportunity for us to care for patients when they need us most – it’s the reason I came into nursing, so please let us help. Surely it’s more beneficial than me sitting in my living room?

View our COVID-19 resources

Eden Baker, a final-year children’s nursing student at Queen’s University BelfastEden Baker is a final-year children’s nursing student at Queen’s University Belfast