News that a West Midlands trust is to extend a scheme whereby unemployed people deliver patient care makes me deeply uncomfortable.
First there is the issue of whether it is right to be asking jobseekers to spend eight weeks doing unpaid work in an NHS that is shedding staff. I appreciate that many unemployed people need support in their search for work, and being able to show relevant work experience can make all the difference to job applications.
While Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust may not be using unpaid workers to undertake work previously done by paid staff, there is certainly the possibility for trusts to consider this as a way of filling gaps left when staff numbers are cut.
I also have misgivings about the type of work the jobseekers are being allocated. While many of the tasks are uncontroversial - general tidying, welcoming visitors, running errands, and reading to patients – they are also being asked to serve drinks to patients and assist with feeding.
Ensuring patients receive adequate nutrition and fluid is a fundamental nursing role, and in the reports highlighting poor standards of care over the past couple of years, nurses have been repeatedly accused of failing their patients in this respect.
The profession has been accused of being more interested in academic qualifications than in core nursing responsibilities, yet fluid and nutrition are suddenly the domain of those undertaking unpaid work experience.
Hiving off these important responsibilities devalues nurses’ skills and puts patients at risk, yet nurses will still be held accountable if anything goes wrong, because they will be delegating the tasks to the unpaid workers.
Nursing has come in for a huge amount of flak recently, and the poor practice of the few has been used as a stick to beat the many. How is the profession ever to put its house in order if it is bombarded with mixed messages about its key responsibilities?