Student nurses who gave up jobs will be eligible for PUP payment

Department confirms 31 students got Covid-19 since March amid controversy over pay

Many student nurses had to give up part-time positions as healthcare assistants to avoid the risk of cross-infection. Photograph: Paul Burns/Getty Images

Many student nurses had to give up part-time positions as healthcare assistants to avoid the risk of cross-infection. Photograph: Paul Burns/Getty Images

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has confirmed that student nurses who lost part-time jobs because of the Covid-19 crisis will be eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment.

There are about 4,000 student nurses and midwives, a number of whom had jobs in healthcare settings such as nursing homes to fund their studies.

Many of the students had to give up those part-time positions to avoid the risk of cross-infection. Many of them worked as healthcare assistants during the first lockdown when hospitals were under pressure with staff shortages and increased admissions.

The pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) will be applied retrospectively from the day they lost their jobs or had to give them up, Mr Donnelly said.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) which raised concerns about the loss of students’ income, was informed last week about the pandemic payment.

The Department of Health and the Department of Social Protection confirmed they were working closely together to ensure the nurses received supports.

The Department of Health also confirmed that 31 student nurses had contracted Covid-19 since March. The largest number of cases was in April when 12 students were infected while the second highest month for infection was October when six students contracted the virus.

News of the Covid cases among nurses and the PUP payment eligibility emerged as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that pay for student nurses and midwives was under consideration. But he said that any agreement would only take effect from September next year.

His comments followed sustained Opposition pressure about pay for student nurses and midwives.

On Wednesday night, the Government rejected by 79 to 72 votes a Solidarity-People Before Profit motion to reinstate pay for those student nurses who worked and were paid as healthcare assistants during the first wave of the pandemic at €14 an hour. The payment was subsequently stopped.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said the Government was taking advantage of student nurses and midwives. “They are being exploited, they are being taken for granted and they deserve so much more – not claps, not slogans, not platitudes, but they deserve to be paid,” he said.

The student nurses and midwives are “our heroes” he said, having “stepped into the breach” when hospital services were “put under pressure like never before”.

“When we asked them to go to the front line to put their lives and their families’ health at risk, and to step up, the least that can be done is that they are rewarded with decent and fair pay.”

This issue would be a “litmus test” of the Government’s commitment to fairness for frontline workers, he added.

Rejecting the claim that the students were being taken for granted, the Tánaiste said a lot of students did not get paid. Exceptions were made in certain cases including gardaí in training, apprentices and nurses who he said are paid for their final year of training, “in recognition of the fact that what they do then is unsupervised and is work that would have to be done and paid for if they did not do it”.

Fourth-year students are paid €9.48 an hour for clinical placement work over 36 weeks. First, second and third-year students are eligible only for a weekly €50 accommodation allowance.

Mr Varadkar said the issue of student pay was being considered. “A review of student allowances is now under way and will be completed shortly and it is intended that this outcome, once negotiated with the unions, will take effect from September 2021.”

The INMO has called on the Government to pay all final-year interns the same rate as healthcare assistants, increase and expand the clinical placement allowance for all other students and to provide full health and safety protection to all students, including payment if they have to go on Covid-related leave.

‘This week in Irish politics has shown that the Government would prefer to pay large sums of money to the greyhound industry rather than to student nurses and midwives,” said Meadhbh Flynn, a fourth year student nurse at UCD.

“While we are indeed learning, we are being used to fill in the gaps of a chronically understaffed system. Students on placement are struggling to meet their daily learning needs because they are carrying out duties that should be performed by paid staff members,”she said. “It is incredibly discouraging to hear that we do not deserve a fair and proper wage for this work. How can the government expect to retain a workforce that is already fed up with the system before we even qualify?”