Labour’s new shadow health secretary, Diane Abbott, has used one of her first statements to attack government plans to replace student nurse bursaries with a system of loans.
She accused the government of creating a recruitment gap by capping the supply of nurses and then announcing an untested policy that will only increase shortages.
“Placing the burden of the cost of education on nurses themselves is plain wrong”
The government announced the controversial plans in November, as part of its comprehensive spending review, following lobbying by some in the education sector.
It claimed the move would create up to 10,000 extra training places for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals by 2020 by freeing up universities to run as many course places as they wanted without being constrained by government funding.
However, unions and other nursing bodies have largely criticised the proposals, arguing that they will be a disincentive to mature students and people from poorer backgrounds.
The government’s consultation on the plans closed last week, prompting a further round of criticism from nursing organisations.
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Ms Abbott said the change would create an “open market” that would remove the health service’s ability to place nurses where there was demand.
She described the shift from grants to loans as “regressive”, adding that poorer students were more likely to rely on loans and would, therefore, be more likely to be saddled with debt.
Ms Abbott, speaking in response to a new report on the UK’s nursing labour market, which was published yesterday, said: “Placing the burden of the cost of education on nurses themselves is plain wrong.
“Nurses are the lifeline of our NHS and they shouldn’t have to be saddled with excessive levels of debt to qualify,” she said.
Referencing the dispute over the new contract for junior doctors, Ms Abbott accused ministers of “imposing more unpopular policies on frontline staff”.
“Nurses spend half of their training working in the wards of our hospitals,” she said. “Making them pay for their own education means that they are in effect paying for the privilege to look after the nation’s sick.”
She added that the current nurse shortage was a “result of the government’s ideological attachment to austerity and is a problem of its own making”.
“The solution is not to lump our nurses with debt but to lift the cap on recruitment,” she said.
However, the government has consistently argued that the move to loans meant students would be able to access around 25% more financial support for their day-to-day costs.
It has also highlighted that around two thirds of people who apply for nursing courses are not currently accepted for training and said the changes would mean more will be able to become nurses.
Ms Abbott was made shadow health secretary by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the end of June, in the wake of the mass resignations following the European Union referendum.
The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington replaced Heidi Alexander in the role as lead spokesperson on Labour health policy.