The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has said further clarity is needed on the decision to suspend placements for student nurses.
More than 2,000 student nurses and midwives are to be removed from their clinical training placements in public hospitals on a temporary basis by the Department of Health due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on staffing levels.
Final year students in their internship will continue to work over the coming two weeks, but the INMO has requested that their pay is increased to the healthcare assistant grade, as it was in March.
The union says that this would better reflect the workload the final-year interns face.
INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, said: “This is a last minute decision and further clarity is needed. Students have been put in incredibly risky situations with no pay and weakened protections.
“Those interns who are being asked to continue working need to be valued properly. Earlier in the pandemic, their pay was increased to take account of the risks and workload they faced. The Minister should do the right thing and reinstate that policy.”
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Saturday authorised the ending of the current placement arrangements for student nurses and midwives across the country for at least two weeks in a bid to free up senior and experienced nurses, who currently oversee the training, and to allow them to return to front-line duties.
The situation is expected to be reviewed again towards the beginning of February.
The Department of Health said on Saturday night that the HSE had sought that experienced and qualified staff who currently supported undergraduate training for students in Years 1-3 of their courses be released for redeployment as part of the Covid-19 response.
“In light of this development, all clinical placements for student nurses and midwives in Years 1-3 will be suspended for a period of least two weeks from January 18th, 2021, as there will be no educational and support infrastructure for them while in the clinical learning environment.”
The Department of Health said the situation was “evolving” and “under constant review in the context of the current Covid-19 demand trajectory”.
The new move will not affect those in their final year, who work as interns in hospitals.
The Department of Health said at present, student nurses and midwives in Years 1-3 of their courses were considered to be “ supernumerary, and their clinical education is in addition to the normal or requisite number of qualified nurses or midwives”.
“The temporary suspension of these student placements will free up clinical placement co-ordinators, practice co-ordinators, as well as nurses and midwives working in other educational and policy development roles so they can support the HSE at this challenging time.
“Students in Year 4, the final year before qualification, are counted for rostering purposes as 0.5 of a fulltime equivalent nurse/midwife. Student nurse and midwife placements for interns, who are in fourth year, will continue with the appropriate education and support infrastructure in place.”
Some local hospitals are understood to have curtailed student nurse placements already, but Mr Donnelly’s move will see all placements for students in the first three years end at a national level on a temporary basis.
It is understood the HSE contacted the chief nursing officer at the Department of Health who, in turn, made a recommendation to the Minister. Mr Donnelly authorised the move on Saturday.
Mr Donnelly said he knew many students would be disappointed by the developments. He said, however, that he wanted to reassure them that “all options will be considered in restarting these placements as soon as it is possible”.
Rachel Kenna, Department of Health chief nursing officer, said: "I recognise the enormous commitment students have made in participating in the clinical learning environments at a very challenging time. The education of student nurses and midwives is a priority for all of us, but this must be done safely, with the appropriate supports and supervision structures in place."
The students affected are expected to continue to receive their existing educational allowance for accommodation of €50.79 per week of placement, as well as SUSI grants and any pandemic unemployment payments to which some may have been entitled.
Last spring about 1,350 students in the first three years of their courses took up roles as healthcare assistants in the health service for a period under an initiative introduced by the then government.
On this occasion there will be no national arrangement for student nurses to be employed as healthcare assistants, although it will open to hospitals at local level to do so if they consider it necessary.
It is understood that the HSE told the Department of Health a national scheme to employ student nurses as healthcare assistants was not needed at this time.
Higher education institutes were briefed on the decision to end the student nurse placement on a temporary basis by the Department of Health on Saturday afternoon.
The Government has been under pressure for some weeks over payments to student nurses.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation argued the students on placement were being exploited and urged that they should be paid as healthcare assistants. The union and Opposition politicians claimed the students on placement were being effectively asked to to work as staff employees for no pay.
There was also criticism of some of the duties which the student nurses had been asked to carry out while on their placements in hospitals.
The Department of Health has contended that no healthcare students in disciplines such as medicine, physiotherapy or radiography, for example, are paid before they qualify, with the exception of fourth-year student nurses who receive the equivalent of an annual salary of €21,749 . Those training in psychiatric nursing receive the equivalent of €22,229 for their intern period in fourth year.
Before Christmas, the Government announced a review of allowances which recommended earlier this month a new pandemic placement grant worth €100 per week when the students are on hospital placements.
Trade unions expressed unhappiness at the recommendation.