As I mentioned to Deputy Cullinane earlier, I recognise the importance of student nurses and midwives completing their essential clinical placements in a safe environment. During the first surge of Covid-19 it was not possible to facilitate student placements from April onwards. This was due to redeployment of staff, including senior nurses who would ordinarily be supervising the students. There was a particularly high rate of absenteeism and the HSE’s directors of nursing said they could not ensure clinical placements were protected. There were fears hospitals could be overrun. At the time, there were up to 900 Covid patients in hospitals. Thankfully, the situation has improved. As of Sunday, 6 December, there were 232 Covid patients in hospital.
In April, students were offered healthcare assistant, HCA, contracts to work and contribute to the national effort. Approximately 1,350 of the 3,200 first to third year students took up HCA roles and contributed to the national effort. All fourth year students were also paid at the HCA pay rate. Given that working as a healthcare assistant does not provide student nurses and midwives with the structured educational outcomes that are part of a graduate programme, it was important to have the students revert to their educational placements as quickly as possible. The HSE’s directors of nursing have said that all student placements have now fully resumed. It is imperative that educational placements are protected for education. Payment at the HCA rate was made during the first Covid wave solely because the student nurses were working as HCAs.
We do not want the student nurses and midwives working as healthcare assistants, but to be full-time students on educational placements. The colleges, which have primary responsibility for these students, have not contacted me or the Department of Education to seek payment for them as healthcare assistants. In fact, I understand that the colleges, which are fully responsible for the students' education, are firmly of the view that these placements are clinical education placements and must be protected as such.