AT THE beginning of the pandemic, the Government faced considerable crises on just about every front. Not least of these was the fact that, at a time when the NHS was under increasing pressure, the shortage of frontline nurses stood at more than 40,000. An army of extra nurses was needed urgently; so, in desperation, the Government turned to student nurses who are still in training and to former nurses who had recently left the workforce.
The call for help was answered in huge numbers. Over the past few weeks, more than 15,000 student nurses have volunteered to fast-track study and join the front line, while a similar number of retired nurses have returned to the profession to help fight the Covid-19 outbreak. All of those who have signed up have voluntarily put themselves at considerable risk of contracting, or passing on to their families, a potentially fatal virus. And they have done so out of a deep and lasting commitment to public service.
The service of these students and retired nurses is just one of the many ways in which people from all sorts of backgrounds have gone above and beyond to help their communities and love their neighbours at this time.
THAT this extraordinary measure was needed, though, and that so much has been asked of student and retired nurses, has highlighted a significant structural flaw in our nursing workforce. For years, too few people have been choosing to study nursing, and too many existing nurses have left the profession.
And nursing is just one of many public-service careers, vital to society, where there are desperate shortages. Last year, the number of students who began teacher training was only 85 per cent of the number needed. We have only three out of every five occupational therapists whom we need, and, across the country, there are 120,000 too few social workers.
We must do more to encourage people to study for these vital professions — and we need to retain those who do enter the workforce. When the transition from lockdown begins, the recovery of the economy and the rebuilding of society will remain reliant on our public services. Those students who have risked their lives caring for and saving the lives of others will be propping us up, all the while still bearing the weight of their student debt.
If we are to encourage young people to commit themselves to public-service vocations such as nursing — but also social work, occupational therapy, and teaching — we must not disincentivise study with the burden of student debt.
Equally, if we have any hope of reskilling adult working professionals to meet the demands of our emerging fourth industrial revolution, we need to make it affordable for them to train. Some 50 per cent of nursing and midwifery trainees are mature students, many with additional family, caring, and financial commitments, but they are also more likely to remain in the profession.
We must create new and effective solutions to staff shortages and retention issues through public policy that benefits both the individual student and society as a whole. If we are to ask young people to choose the careers that society needs, if we are to ask them to care for our loved ones and protect the vulnerable, we must ensure that they are not saddled with decades of debt. And, once they have joined the workforce, we must reward them for remaining in the profession.
THAT is why I am calling for the introduction of a new public-service covenant. As part of this covenant, all students studying for a career in public service where there are workforce shortages would receive a tuition-fee waiver. These fees would need to be repaid only if the student did not go on to complete several years’ service in the NHS, in schools, or in their relevant profession.
I believe that this covenant would encourage many young people to choose a career in public service. It would also help us to retain more of our health-care staff and other vital public servants, and, in turn, develop a strong and reliable workforce for the future.
The Rt Revd Tim Dakin is the Bishop of Winchester.