As 19 June marks 100 days since the global pandemic was declared, we bring together our key sources of support and explain how we’ve been campaigning on your behalf throughout the crisis
Pushing for PPE and priority testing
It became clear early on that getting enough appropriate PPE was a priority, followed by testing. We listened and used the evidence you gave us in our surveys to put pressure on the government while giving you advice so you could stay safe in your workplaces.
In March we wrote to the Prime Minister and leaders of the devolved nations to demand their intervention in ensuring the sufficient supply of PPE for nursing staff during the pandemic and we demanded the Health and Safety Executive took stronger action to ensure this happened. Helen Whyley, Director of RCN Wales, also wrote to the Health and Safety Executive to ask that it intervene on behalf of nursing staff in Wales.
We highlighted the particular challenges faced by nursing staff working in care homes, community settings and hospices in accessing PPE.
In Northern Ireland, a group of RCN reps met the First Minister, Deputy First Minister, Health Minister and Chief Nursing Officer in early April to outline concerns regarding PPE, testing and support measures for nurses.
Your feedback meant the public was aware of the challenges you were facing and RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair used her appearances on BBC Question Time to restate your concerns and needs.
We created practical resources to support your decision-making in the workplace, including ground-breaking advice on how to escalate concerns, refusal to treat and how to understand the difference between fit tests and fit checks. We also produced comprehensive FAQs about PPE, covering everything from facial hair to accepting donated equipment.
In Wales, the Welsh government listened to demands from RCN Wales for information about testing figures and started publishing weekly data on the number of tests being provided in Wales. In addition, after raising concerns about the Welsh government’s decision not to follow England on testing in care homes, the First Minister agreed to reconsider the guidance.
Providing expert advice and support
Our dedicated COVID-19 webpages collate advice, support and guidance for nursing staff. There’s also a comprehensive list of continually updated FAQs, covering issues such as employer responsibilities, furlough, home working and self-isolation.
We’ve developed robust processes to review and respond to the concerns raised by members as well as the ever-changing guidance related to COVID-19. This has seen us create more than 180 new positions on matters ranging from laundering uniform to providing patient consultations over the phone since the pandemic began.
While we offer lots of online support and advice, we know sometimes hearing a reassuring voice is what members want and need. We’ve pulled out all the stops to continue our telephone advice service and have increased our staffing so we can respond more quickly to queries via live web chat.
Head of the RCN Customer Services Centre Terina Scheeres says: “COVID-19 created incredible challenges for maintaining our telephone advice for members, but we’ve adapted to overcome them and are proud to be providing our full service, seven days a week.
“At first, we were receiving 800 calls a day, which is double the usual rate. Wait times were up to 30 minutes and we couldn’t answer every call. Now, wait times are down to two minutes.”
Making sure you’re fairly paid and valued
We’ve worked with other health unions to secure improved terms and conditions for all NHS staff, including bank staff, during the pandemic. This includes full pay during COVID-19-related absences including when staff need to self-isolate or shield themselves in line with government guidance.
We’re now campaigning for this type of financial security for nursing staff working outside the NHS, including those in GP practices and social care. We’ve also developed template letters (see the section on self-isolation and pay) to help members working in the independent sector to raise pay issues. After we pressured governments on the issue, all care home employers should now be ensuring staff receive full pay for any COVID-19 related absence, as opposed to statutory sick pay.
We believe that all staff should be fully and fairly paid for every extra hour worked during the pandemic - a point that was emphasised in the joint union blueprint for reopening NHS services.
The NHS Staff Council has agreed joint guidance on overtime payments in England during the pandemic. We have also worked with other health unions to develop a toolkit to support our workplace reps to negotiate local arrangements for overtime payments in their workplaces.
We’ve written to the Prime Minister to address misleading suggestions in COVID-19 press briefings about nurse pay rises and called for an honest debate about pay. We’ve stressed that any talk of pay freezes is unacceptable and that the value of nursing staff should be recognised now. We’ve asked how you want the value of nursing to be recognised in the future in a survey sent to all members and will be using the results to demand fair reward and recognition for the vital work you do.
In Northern Ireland, we secured a public commitment that strike pay would be reinstated early on in the pandemic. We’re still waiting for the Department of Health to implement this decision despite a further announcement by the finance minister that money has been allocated to the department for this purpose.
Promoting the profession
The global pandemic has brought public awareness of the professionalism of nursing staff. On 12 May we marked Nurses’ Day with a tribute to the important work you’re doing.
RCN President Professor Anne Marie Rafferty said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated to politicians and the general public what nursing really is, how your skills can be moulded and adapted to respond to national emergencies, and most importantly how our health and care system would be lost without you.”
Meanwhile we shared your experiences on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, including stories not just from intensive care units but also from the perspectives of different specialist nurses, support workers and students.
Supporting your mental health and wellbeing
From the very start of the pandemic, we’ve been keen to share advice about self-care and stress the need for nursing staff to reach out if they need help.
Our dedicated webpages provide information on free helplines for frontline workers as well as links to wellbeing apps that have been made openly available to nursing staff. We also have our own counselling service, which has been operating as normal throughout the pandemic.
Our mindfulness films and guided meditation have been designed especially to help you de-stress from work, and our RCN Bulletin article provides practical advice on how to safeguard your psychological wellbeing.
Protecting BAME nursing staff
We’ve demanded that employers put in extra measures to secure the safety of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) nursing staff as data shows that disproportionately high numbers of people from these communities are becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19.
We expect employers to conduct an equality analysis of staffing issues relating to COVID-19 and update risk assessment processes to include BAME staff in vulnerable and at-risk groups. We also want BAME staff to be prioritised for testing during the first five days of symptoms.
In our RCN Activate article, safety rep Michael Hayworth and steward Olga Leach-Walters explain how they've been supporting BAME nursing staff during the pandemic. We’re also starting a new series of conversations with our members about race and inclusivity.
Fighting for nursing students
As plans took shape for students in the last six months of their degree to go on paid clinical placements, we insisted that this must be optional and that those who chose not to would not be disadvantaged by making that decision.
We created advice for those heading out on placement and published a special issue of RCN Students magazine looking at a range of issues related to COVID-19.
We’ve also pressured the UK government to drop student debt in England. In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, we insisted that tuition fees be reimbursed or existing debt forgiven, and that tuition fees for nursing students starting degrees this year and beyond are abolished.
We continue to work to support our student members, demanding governments and regulators keep them informed about next steps, irrespective of whether they are on an extended placement and about to register, returning to their university courses, or remained on the academic route.
Campaigning for all our members
Following two years of fighting for our members, the unfair immigration health surcharge (IHS) was finally waived for health care workers from overseas in May. However, we’ve since written to the Prime Minister seeking confirmation that all international health and care staff, and their spouses and dependants, will no longer need to pay.
We also ran quick and successful public campaigns around supermarket opening hours for health and care staff, as well as free hospital parking in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Creating bespoke guidance for redeployed staff and on end of life care
Many members have been redeployed to new working areas. To support those of you in this unexpected position we quickly pulled together guidance and set up a peer support network for those who took the decision to return to nursing.
We recognised that members in our retired membership category who’d returned to work may need workplace support and gave them that on our retired membership rate. We also extended this to those who weren’t previously members.
We proudly shared the work that redeployed staff were doing in our magazine articles too. Shiny reflected on her redeployment to ITU while RCN steward Greg shared his experience of working in a COVID-19 assessment centre after 20 years out of clinical practice.
A new RCN online learning programme was swiftly created to help members care for people who are dying during the pandemic. The bitesize online resources include podcasts by experts who discuss how to recognise, communicate, support and plan effective end of life care.
We also recognised that members might need to make urgent decisions around performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) so we worked with the Nursing and Midwifery Council to launch guidance on this.
Advising on skin health
With so many more nursing staff having to wear PPE, we quickly published guidance on maintaining skin health while wearing the equipment.
We also launched a new set of resources to help you look after your skin health and an online learning module about the skin condition dermatitis.
Read more about saving your skin in our RCN Bulletin article.