THOUSANDS of student nurses and midwives have marched through London and other cities as they protest against the Government’s decision to scrap bursaries and replace them with loans.
The plan was unveiled in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review and is expected to free up around £800 million a year in Government spending.
But the measure has been heavily criticised by unions including Unison and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which described it as “a crushing blow”.
At a rally outside Downing Street, young trainee nurses and midwives were supported by union representatives, opposition MPs, and members of the Royal College of Nursing as they gave a message to the Government - “hands off our NHS”.
Marching under the “bursary or bust” campaign, they also proposed that all NHS students join junior doctors for a half-day walk-out on February 10.
Among those who addressed the students at the rally was shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander who was roundly cheered as she told them the Labour Party is on their side before reading out a message of support from leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Relaying a message he sent her earlier today, she said: “I admire our brilliant NHS staff and their work.
“We must keep nursing bursaries for the next generation so that nurses can qualify, help all of us and not be lost to the profession.
“Support for our NHS and the brilliant work that all the staff do will always be there from the Labour Party.”
She herself added: “I think the Government is taking a huge gamble with the future of the NHS and you need to know that the Labour Party will fight them every step of the way.
“First it was the junior doctors and now it is the student nurses. We will oppose them and we will not let them put the future of the NHS at risk.”
Under current conditions, student nurses and midwives get an annual NHS bursary of between £1,000 and £4,000 while they study, which they do not have to pay back, and are exempt from tuition fees.
But they will be scrapped from August 2017, a move which critics have said will leave them and student occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, podiatrists and radiographers facing thousands of pounds of debt when they graduate.
Consultation on the policy will begin later in the year, but more than 150,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the plan to be scrapped and the NHS bursary retained, and Parliament is expected to debate the issue on Monday.
Sylvie Duval, chairwoman of the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) student council, said the bursaries were an “essential financial support” and taking them away and replacing them with student loans would “pile on more personal financial pressure to an already overstretched part of the health care workforce”.
She said: “We are deeply worried about what this move means for the future of the NHS, our future colleagues and above all, patient care.”
RCN chief executive Janet Davies, who addressed the crowd in Whitehall, added: “Student nurses and midwives are the profession’s future and their voices and concerns must, and should be listened to.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We need more home-grown nurses in the NHS because they do an amazing job caring for patients, but currently two thirds of people who apply to become a nurse aren’t accepted for training.
“Our plans mean up to 10,000 more training places by the end of this parliament, with student nurses getting around 25% more financial support whilst they study.”