Opinion

Nursing stereotypes have been shattered by the pandemic

The leadership shown by nursing staff has supported us out of the pandemic, says Royal College of Nursing president Anne Marie Rafferty. Now is the time to keep up that support and help staff to nurse the nation back to health.

All of us involved in nursing have always known what a highly-skilled profession it is. Old-fashioned views have bedevilled it for years as “women’s work” or “vocational”, but what the public has seen during the pandemic has cast nursing in a new light.

More than 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale, the media coverage of nurses delivering highly complex care throughout the pandemic has shattered the old gendered stereotypes. The public now has a much greater understanding of just how skilled nurses are, both in providing personal medical care and organising complex, life-saving systems. 

From the first Covid cases right through to the design and the implementation of the vaccination programme, it has been nurses that have been leading the way, often while shouldering the huge emotional burden imposed by the pandemic. In media reports, nurses have described losing several patients a day, often without loved ones to comfort them because of the lockdown restrictions.

This media coverage has made a difference. The Royal College of Nursing commissioned a poll to discover changing attitudes and found, of respondents who said their understanding of the role of nurses had improved, more than half (54 per cent) said it was the media coverage which had given them greater knowledge of the reach and range of their skills and capabilities.

I have seen for myself that from the very beginning of the pandemic nurses have been innovating the ways they design and offer care, whether by refashioning infection control practices or connecting patients with their loved ones and families. Many of the very same nurses are now leading the roll-out of the vaccination programme which the national roadmap relies on for our exit route out of the pandemic. 

The public has been right behind nursing staff throughout the pandemic, and rightly so. And this new poll shows nearly three quarters (71 per cent) think nurses deserve more recognition for the work they do.

Nurses could not have got through the last year without the support of the public. At the end of a shift, when you are exhausted physically and emotionally, knowing what you have done is appreciated can provide a massive boost.

Now, as we campaign for a pay rise that properly recognises the skills and capabilities of nurses to patient safety and outcomes, I would urge the public to maintain that tremendous level of support. 

The fact is, in the early days of the pandemic especially, patients were reliant upon the skill set of nurses. It was those fundamental care and surveillance skills that made the difference between life and death at a time when we were still learning about the virus and how to manage it.

We are a graduate, science-based, safety-critical profession but the government has proposed a 1 per cent pay increase. It would continue to leave a skilled profession such as ours worse off than they were 10 years ago. 

Our polling shows nearly three-quarters of the public (71 per cent) think nurses deserve more. We need to get ministers to listen to and act on that support and not just provide warm words.

The leadership shown by nursing staff has supported us out of the pandemic, and I am so proud of what the profession has accomplished at this crucial time. Now is the time to keep up that support and help us to nurse the nation back to health and recover from this most painful pandemic.

Professor Dame Anne Marie Rafferty is president of the Royal College of Nursing.

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