The Royal College of Nursing has welcomed an assurance that student nurses drafted into frontline NHS services battling coronavirus in England will have their contracts honoured following a period of “confusion and distress”.
It comes after anger mounted among some of the 18,700 student nurses who started working in hospitals before their training ended believed their contracts had been ended earlier than expected as Covid-19 cases fell and the pressure on healthcare services continued to ease.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, last week said paid placements were being terminated early, effectively leaving students with no income, after the schemes were initially advertised locally as being for six months.
On Friday, Health Education England (HEE) issued an FAQ confirming that students would be fully paid until the end of their contracts, lasting until the end of August in some cases, after some were understood to have been told their contracts would end prematurely.
“These placements are normally … unpaid but to recognise the special circumstances and as part of the response to Covid-19 these clinical hours have been paid,” it said.
“Any student in the last six months of their programme on paid placement will be fully paid until the end of their employment contract offer, unless voluntarily ended early by the student.”
The chair of the Royal College of Nursing student committee, Jess Sainsbury, said student nurses currently working hard on extended placements would feel reassured to know their contracts are to be honoured.
“A lack of clarity and information around this issue has led to confusion and distress, at a time when those who have responded to the pandemic simply want to focus on their role and do the best job they can for their patients,” she said.
The RCN director for England, Mike Adams, also welcomed the clarity provided by the statement and said he was pleased to see confirmation that any change to existing contracts must be voluntarily ended by the student, rather than by the employer.
Ian Hamilton, an associate professor from the University of York who supervises some student nurses, said: “Most students who opted in were given six-month paid contracts but then a couple of weeks ago some trusts started issuing notice on these saying they wouldn’t need the students beyond three months. The students rightly felt the trusts had reneged on the initial agreement.”
HEE’s chief nurse, Mark Radford, had said it had been made clear to students who took the paid placements that the arrangements would need to come to an end at an appropriate point so they could return to complete their registered nursing qualifications as quickly as possible and permanently enter the NHS workforce.
NHS England directed the Guardian to the Department of Health and Social Care, which said it was wrong to suggest student nurses and midwives’ contracts were ever cut short.
“All students are required to complete placements during their training, but as the Covid-19 response was an exceptional ask, these hours have been paid,” a spokesperson said.
“We are bringing paid placements to a close by the end summer in line with course requirements, so students can qualify as registered nurses or continue with their studies as planned.
“Any student in the last six months of their programme and on paid placement will be paid until the end of their contract, unless otherwise agreed. By the end of July most final year students can qualify as registered nurses and start full time work, increasing their pay.”
Employers and universities are to liaise with second and third year students to aim to bring paid placements to a close by 31 August as part of voluntary agreements between students, placement providers and universities. Any new placements starting after 31 July will be unpaid.