The cabinet will tomorrow consider Department of Health proposals to pay student nurses and midwives €100 per week for clinical placements during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The proposed Pandemic Placement Grant would cost around €5.4 million if backdated to September as expected, and paid until the end of the academic year in June.

Last Saturday, the Department of Health announced that the student nurses' placements are being suspended for at least two weeks to free up qualified staff who supervise them for front-line duties, as the surge in Covid-19 hospitalisations continues.

When clinical placements were suspended during the first lockdown, the HSE converted the students to Health Care Assistant roles and paid them as such - a situation which the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation would like to see re-instated.

However, on Saturday, the Department of Health said the HSE had clearly indicated that it required fully qualified and experienced personnel, rather than additional HCAs - and that the HCA arrangement would not be reinstated.

The issue of payment for student nurses was at the centre of controversy before Christmas amid allegations of exploitation, unpaid labour and the assignment of inappropriate tasks during the placements.

A review commissioned by the Department of Health and carried out by Dr. Tom Collins recommended that the first, second and third year students should be paid a Pandemic Placement Grant €100 per week net of tax during placements, with the possibility of retrospective payments backdated to September.

Arrangements for the 36-week paid internship for fourth year students would remain unchanged.

The report notes that to address staff shortages in the early stages of the pandemic, rostered fourth year interns were placed on three-month Health Care Assistant salaries, while 1,250 of those on "supernumerary" placement accepted voluntary temporary contracts as Health Care Assistants.

The Collins report notes that while the Government could do this again if further surges resulting in staff shortages occur, it would be preferable to address those shortages through normal staffing strategies.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has not yet confirmed whether it accepts the recommendations of the Collins report.

However, union sources believe that in light of the recent dramatic escalation in Covid-19 cases, the report no longer reflects the realities of the situation faced by students on clinical placements.

They argue that given the additional case load in the community, along with mounting hospitalisations, which they claim leads to an enhanced risk of contracting the virus, "it would be all the more appropriate that student nurses and midwives should be paid a proper wage." 

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the Dáil is due to debate a Sinn Féin motion on pay for student nurses and midwives.

It notes that during placements, up to 4,500 student nurses currently have to work shifts of up to 12 hours without pay.

It dismisses the offer of €100 per week as inadequate, and calls on the government to reinstate the HCA arrangement to ensure that students are appropriately paid for their work on the front line during the pandemic.

The Sinn Féin motion also calls for a second review of allowances for student nurses and midwives to be accelerated to ensure they are in place by the end of the pandemic - and for that review to be expanded "to ascertain the extent to which students performing work in hospitals beyond the requirements of their degree occurs, and to ensure that where this occurs it is appropriately compensated."