Orcadian Column, 6 July 2021

Being stretchered off a football pitch certainly provides a helpful reminder of how indebted we all are to our emergency services. No-one starts the day thinking they’ll need a paramedic, but many end the day very grateful they are there.

I was delighted, therefore, to see a campaign to secure better support for student paramedics reach a successful conclusion last week. I became aware of the campaign last summer after being contacted by a young constituent, Megan Nicholson, who persuaded me of the need to give the cause a profile in parliament. As well as raising the issue at First Minister’s Questions, I also led a members debate last October, securing cross party backing for my motion in support of the campaign.

During that debate, as well as highlighting the fact that paramedics are the front line of the front line, I pointed out that changes in the training required to become a paramedic have created additional financial pressures. Students must now complete a BSc in Paramedic Science. This will help better prepare them for entering the service, but as they are expected to undertake extensive placement work as part of their course, it also leaves little scope to take on part-time paid employment, even over the summer, to help fund those studies. As Megan explained to me, she and her peers are expected to work the same hours as a fully qualified paramedic, but unpaid.

Student nurses and midwives are in a similar position, yet receive an NHS bursary of up to £10,000 a year to help with living costs. That is right and ensures that cost, or the prospect of accumulating significant debt, does not act as a barrier to those looking to train as a nurse or a midwife.

In contrast, up until now, student paramedics have been expected to support themselves with just the standard, repayable SAAS loan. A report published last year found many student paramedics fell below the poverty line, with some even classed as ‘destitute’.

Such findings were shameful and demanded a response. Sadly, at the time, the Health Minister who responded to my debate limited himself to echoing the sympathy expressed by Nicola Sturgeon when I raised it with her at FMQs the week before. The subsequent election back in May, however, helped concentrate minds and a manifesto promise was made to put student paramedics on a par with student nurses and midwives.

It then became a race against time to ensure this support was in place ahead of the summer, when potential students would be considering their options ahead of the start of the new term. Thankfully, details of the grant have now been confirmed by Ministers.

By making a career as a paramedic more accessible to more people, we can begin to address capacity issues in the service, workload pressures and sickness related absences. As such, this move has the potential to deliver benefits not just nationally, but at a local level too, where there remains a pressing need to bring capacity more in line with that available in Shetland.

Meantime, parliament will be recalled next week to allow the First Minister to update MSPs on the latest Covid situation. Since Holyrood went into recess a fortnight ago, case numbers have risen dramatically to the point where Scotland is being dubbed the ‘Covid capital of Europe’. The First Minister continues to insist she is taking a more cautious approach to the pandemic, though her mixed messages around Scottish football fans travelling to London for the recent match against England clearly did not help.

So Nicola Sturgeon is not expected to announce next Tuesday that she will be following the UK government in lifting all restrictions from 19 July. Even from the later date she has set of 9 August, restrictions will remain, including around use of facemasks, social distancing and a continued presumption of working from home for many.

But ever more inconsistencies in the way restrictions apply inevitably erodes public confidence in and compliance with the decisions being taken. It is vital, therefore, the First Minister sets out clearly the evidence for the way in which she is managing the competing health and other risks.

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