The nursing pandemic no one’s talking about

Authors: Rochelle Shanthakumar
  • Posted on: January 15, 2021

At the height of the pandemic, clapping for carers gave some of the public a fuzzy feeling. The government drafted in retired nurses, migrant healthcare workers and final year nursing students to work on the frontlines of an understaffed system, and used military language to portray key workers as national heroes, while key worker migrant visa costs and nursing student fees were swept under the carpet. 

Nurses are now going through the same experience, but heightened. They are making even tougher decisions and dealing with the most traumatic year the NHS has faced. And at the same time, safe and proper mentorship for newly qualified nurses in their first few months is under more strain than ever.


Prior to 2017, England student nurses and midwives received a bursary award towards living costs and university fees. But from 2017 till 2020, there was no NHS bursary award. Students worked 2,300+ hours of unpaid placement hours and night shifts for their degree, while paying upwards of £9,000 a year.

Most student midwives and nurses in those intakes will therefore leave university with up to £60,000 in debt. Those from the poorest backgrounds will have been forced to borrow the most, despite having committed to a career in a valuable public service at a time when the NHS is in desperate need of more of them.

Pay scales are upside down where essential workers are paid far less than the average office worker, wages just don’t make up for all the debt, meanwhile a total of £46.4 billion has been spent on furlough in the UK this year.

Credit: Craig Oldham


2020 saw the return of £5,000 government grants to drive an uptake in nursing students. It’s an acknowledgement that it was not appropriate to remove the original bursary. But this ignores three batches of students and recent graduates who have worked during the peak of the pandemic.

A recent petition asked that the student loan debt of existing students during the 2017-2019 academic years is reduced by £5,000 (the bursary from 2020) per each of those academic years in which they studied and did not receive any bursary, however, this closed in September 2020 with under the asking amount of signatures.


In 2020, 13.8 % of all NHS workers were migrants – that’s around 170,000 people. Thousands of migrant health and care workers fall into a lower pay bracket, but are still facing extortionate visa and health surcharge costs.
Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea says;

“The health and care sector is already facing a recruitment crisis with hundreds of thousands of posts unfilled. Making overseas staff pay extortionate fees to work in the NHS and care sector is short-sighted and ​potentially dangerous.”


The latest NHS figures show there were 36,655 vacancies for nursing staff in England in September 2020, with the worst shortages affecting mental health care and acute hospitals. 

The Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive and the general secretary said: “The simple, inescapable truth is that we do not have enough nursing staff in the UK to safely care for patients in hospitals, clinics, their own homes or anywhere else.” 

The RCN’s chief executive Janet Davies has warned “Nursing is now a graduate profession but it lacks a graduate salary that compensates for the fees paid”. 

Newly graduated nurses during the pandemic are dealing with patients in understaffed and high stress wards and environments, managing life and death situations, under a huge amount of pressure. This silent pandemic cannot continue to be ignored.

Join the conversation on Twitter with #nursingbursary or support the Royal College of Nursing campaign for fair pay and safe staffing here.