In just a matter of weeks, legal and regulatory changes have been negotiated and set in motion to rapidly and drastically expand the nursing workforce ready for a massive surge in demand.
A national appeal was made for those who have left the profession in the last three years to return to practice, along with those on the register but in non-clinical roles, and students were asked to consider lending their support through paid clinical placements.
Among existing registrants who have stepped up is Stuart Tuckwood, a national nursing officer at the union Unison, who has gone back to work part-time at a major tertiary hospital as a rapid response team nurse.
He said the atmosphere was “strange”, as hospital staff were in the midst of preparing for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients, but at the same time they seemed “determined”.
As a nurse in a high-profile leadership role, Mr Tuckwood said he hoped his decision to help out clinically would set a positive example.
“We are going to need everyone to work at the level that they can and every little bit is going to help, regardless of how much experience or how much knowledge you’ve got or how long it’s been since you’ve been off the register,” he said.
Former director of nursing Sarah Watson-Fisher is among those who signed up to the NMC’s temporary register.
After qualifying around 33 years ago, Ms Watson-Fisher’s career was in primary care and cardiac intensive care nursing, before moving into education and management roles.
She allowed her registration to lapse two-and-a-half years ago and went into healthcare consultancy, but she said she was ready and willing to help however she could – but with the caveat that as long as she was given the right training and personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The NHS is written through me like the writing on a stick of rock; I spent nearly all of my career in it one way or another,” said Ms Watson-Fisher.
She said: “We are facing something that is unprecedented. It’s affecting everybody in our society around the world and, having worked in the NHS, I know we often work under pressure a lot of the time.
“We’ve had staffing issues for years and years, but this needs people to work in different ways. For me, it just seems like the right thing to do.”
Support has even been drawn from the corridors of parliament, with politicians from various parties choosing to go back into practice, including Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield.
After Ms Caulfield was elected in 2015, she continued to work bank shifts but had to stop last year when she became a whip because the ministerial code barred her from having another job.
When the appeal was issued for nurses to return, Ms Caulfield sought and was granted special permission from the prime minister and the cabinet secretary to return to work as a nurse.
Having spent most of her career in hospital oncology, Ms Caulfield said she would be going back to the wards to do “whatever they need me to do”.
“I decided to ask if I could go back to working as a nurse because, in this time of crisis when are skills are so desperately needed, I felt I could not as an MP, praise NHS staff for their hard work and bravery, and not do it myself,” she explained.
While she admitted some apprehension, including reports of PPE shortages, she said she was in a good position to feedback concerns from the front line to ministerial colleagues, in the hope they could be addressed.
“I am really pleased to be part of a group of cross-party MPs with clinical skills going back to help and if by doing this we encourage others to return to practice, then that is a good thing.
“Hopefully, many might think of coming back and staying when this is all over,” she noted.
Sue Richardson was preparing to take a step back from her nursing career when coronavirus hit.
Having first joined in 1980 as a state enrolled nurse, then converting to registered nursing, Ms Richardson has worked across fields including acute and surgical, and community nursing. With pressures mounting in more recent years, Ms Richardson decided to retire this year.
“There was no let-up and it was just one thing after the other and you thought ‘well we have got over the winter pressure then there might be a little break now, oh no, it’s not happening’.
“It’s just as bad during the summer, and that’s down to what is already recognised as staffing issues within the NHS,” she said. “I’m not the only one of my generation who feels the same way.”While Ms Richardson was always planning to go back to work part-time through the bank, COVID-19 has made her eager to return as soon as possible.
“At this time, when things are very difficult for everybody and my colleagues, I feel that it would be the right thing to do to support them.”
For student nurses, the programme of work to get them to the frontline has been more complicated and controversial.
The announcement from NHS England’s chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, on 11 March that their services would be requested sent shock waves through the student community and appeared to catch the NMC and other bodies on the hop.
High-level talks to thrash out the details followed but in the meantime student nurses were left to speculate about what could be expected of them, fuelling anxiety, said Amy Fancourt, who is in the final year of a Master’s degree in adult and mental health nursing at London’s City University and is a student member of Royal College of Nursing Council.
She said: “Announcing something as big as this without having done the background work was maybe not the best way to approach it, but I do understand that this is an unprecedented situation and everybody is just trying to figure it out.”
She also noted a certain level of irony over the fact that many of the students being invited to join the workforce early were those who were just starting their studies when the government decided to axe the bursary that covered their tuition fees in England.
Despite such factors, Ms Fancourt said it was a “no-brainer” that she would support those in practice, adding that she believed students would be able to “rise to the challenge”.
While the road ahead would be difficult, she said there were also opportunities from “getting involved at a time like this”.
She said: “The skills that we will learn will be invaluable and, at the end of that six-month period, if you’ve managed to get through it – some people might struggle, I might struggle – that probably means you are very prepared to be a qualified nurse.”
However, she stressed the importance of students having a choice and not being disadvantaged for not answering the call.
She also urged registered staff on the front line to be supportive of students and utilise their skills in the best way possible, rather than treating them like a “burden”, which was sometimes the case on placement.
While the emergence of COVID-19 has understandably muted the planned celebrations for 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, the crisis has no doubt highlighted the value of the profession and the consequences of underinvestment in the workforce, noted Ms Fancourt.
“Obviously no one could have foreseen this was going to happen, this was supposed to be a year of celebration.
“And, in a funny sort of way, this [crisis] in itself is a tribute to the strength of nurses and midwives and the lengths that they will go to help others,” she said.
“At the same time, it can’t be forgotten that the reason that we are all being put under so much strain is for years they have been undervalued.
“If we had a properly staffed workforce and we had been paid properly and we had all the necessary equipment… then this pandemic would be more manageable.”
Mr Tuckwood, who has been involved in the workforce negotiations for coronavirus as part of his national union role, agreed that the health and care system was starting on the back foot and that the government now needed to do all it could to help nurses overcome it.
“A lot of people are talking about the crisis of the coronavirus, but this winter just passed we were already missing all our key targets and we are already 40,000 nurses short,” he said.
“We weren’t as ready for it as we could have been, but the government seems to realise that now. It’s important that they put whatever resource is needed now into supporting nurses and midwives to help get the country through this.”
Source reference: Nursing Times