Nursing and midwifery student placements have been suspended to allow qualified staff to focus on fighting Covid-19.
As the surge in Covid-19 cases hits overstretched hospitals, the HSE has requested that experienced and qualified staff who currently support undergraduate training for students in Years 1-3 are released for redeployment as part of the pandemic response.
All clinical placements for student nurses and midwives in Years 1-3 will be suspended for at least two weeks from January 18.
More than 2,000 student nurses and midwives are set to be impacted by the suspension of placements.
Qualified nurses and midwives are to be released from the supervision and educational support of student nurses and midwives to assist with the Covid-19 response, the Department of Health announced.
The Minister for Health has assured student nurses that all options shall be examined to resume clinical student placements as soon as possible.
"In response to the current surge of Covid-19, and its impact on staffing across the health service, particularly in critical care areas, all options to maximise the workforce are being actioned," a statement from the Department of Health said.
"This is an evolving situation and is under constant review in the context of the current Covid-19 demand trajectory.
"The temporary suspension of these student placements will free up clinical placement co-ordinators, practice co-ordinators, as well as nurses and midwives working in other educational and policy development roles so they can support the HSE at this challenging time.
"Students in Year 4, the final year before qualification, are counted for rostering purposes as 0.5 of a fulltime equivalent nurse/midwife. Student nurse and midwife placements for interns, who are in fourth year, will continue with the appropriate education and support infrastructure in place."
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has called for further clarity on the situation and on final year students, the union has “sought clarity and requested that their pay is increased to the healthcare assistant grade, as it was in March”.
A statement from the union said that "this would better reflect the workload and risk those final-year interns face".
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly TD said: “I would like to thank all student nurses and midwives for their ongoing commitment to the future of our health services.
"This is an uncertain time for them and I know many will be disappointed by this news. I would like to reassure them that all options will be considered in re-starting these placements as soon as it is possible.”
Rachel Kenna, Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health, added: “I recognise the enormous commitment students have made in participating in the clinical learning environments at a very challenging time.
"The education of student nurses and midwives is a priority for all of us, but this must be done safely, with the appropriate supports and supervision structures in place.”
In making this decision, the Chief Nursing Officer is engaging with the HSE, the Higher Education Institutes and the regulator, to ensure that the impact of this decision is minimized for all nursing and midwifery students, the Department of Health said.
The Department of Health is also engaging with the student nurse and midwife representative organisations this evening.
The HSE’s Office of the Nursing & Midwifery Services Director (ONMSD), Senior Nurses and Midwives from clinical services, the Chief Nursing Office (CNO) in the Department of Health and the Nursing & Midwifery Board of Ireland (NMBI) support the decision, the Department of Health said.
INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, called for clarity, saying it was a "last-minute decision".
She said: “Students have been put in incredibly risky situations with no pay and weakened protections.
“Those interns who are being asked to continue working need to be valued properly.
"Earlier in the pandemic, their pay was increased to take account of the risks and workload they faced. The Minister should do the right thing and reinstate that policy.”