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How organisations such as the RCN Foundation are helping staff, and how to apply for a grant
When the full story of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to be told, the courage of nursing and medical staff in the face of massive pressures will be a stand-out feature.
Nursing Standard. 36, 5, 14-16. doi: 10.7748/ns.36.5.14.s11
Published: 05 May 2021
But perhaps more easily overlooked will be the additional struggles many nursing staff faced in their personal lives as the pandemic ground on.
Lauded as ‘heroes’ and ‘angels’ by the public and the media, many will have felt anything but as they struggled to stay afloat financially.
Stories of nurses and care staff in poverty are sadly not uncommon, but the pandemic has forced many more into that precarious situation.
Paediatric nurse and single mother Carrie* is one example. An agency nurse for 13 years, she had to self-isolate for two weeks after a member of her household had COVID-19 symptoms.
In that fortnight, she received no sick pay. She later lost her job and she had two young children to feed and rent to pay.
Asif*, a healthcare support worker whose work and four-hour round trip to get there were exhausting, was already struggling before his car broke down. When it did, he simply could not afford to get it fixed.
The RCN Foundation was established as an independent charity by the RCN in 2010 to support the profession and improve the health and well-being of the public.
As well as backing projects that promote and advance nursing, it supports vulnerable members of the nursing workforce who are facing hardship and crisis.
And COVID-19 added many more to those numbers, says the foundation’s director Deepa Korea.
‘That nursing staff were taking the time to apply for grants of just £250 shows how desperately short of money some had become during the pandemic’
Deepa Korea, director, RCN Foundation
‘When the pandemic started we saw a huge rise in grant applications from hard-up nursing staff struggling to keep their heads above water.
‘The pandemic really exposed the idiosyncrasies of the profession’s working practices – bank and agency nurses forced to self-isolate suddenly found their income dried up, while other families that relied on both parents’ incomes experienced similar difficulties, to name but two examples.’
Fortunately, just as the number of requests for help rose, donations from the public ‘skyrocketed’, Ms Korea says.
Two new funds were opened in response to demand: the COVID-19 Support Fund, which offered grants of up to £2,000, and the Stelios Says Thank You Awards, a project made possible by the philanthropic foundation of easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, offering grants of up to £250.
The funds were swamped with applications – 1,000 in 48 hours in the case of the latter – forcing them to close while additional funding was sourced.
‘That nursing staff were taking the time to apply for grants of just £250 shows how desperately short of money some of them had become during the pandemic,’ says Ms Korea.
She explains that many of the applications were to cover basic necessities, such as rent.
‘In those circumstances, even a small grant like the ones we offer can make a difference between keeping your head above water financially and not. It’s absolutely heart-breaking.’
It was a devastating chain of events that led mental health nurse Maria* to apply for a grant from the RCN Foundation’s COVID-19 Support Fund.
Diagnosed with cancer four years ago, she had chemotherapy and radical surgery, with reconstructive operations following later.
She had also separated from her husband and moved to a new city. She continued to be employed by the same organisation but had recurring periods of sick leave and when COVID-19 hit the UK last year she was forced to shield.
Then, for complex reasons including a change in Maria’s line management while she was off sick – about which she was unaware – and subsequent emails that went astray, her employer demanded that she repay three months’ wages, leaving her in dire financial straits.
She applied successfully to the COVID-19 Support Fund and was awarded £1,000.
Her new rented home was unfurnished but the grant allowed her to buy some essential furniture including a bed.
Maria says she feels as though she has come through a storm. ‘I felt so moved to receive the grant. And I feel encouraged to press on and pursue my goals to rebuild my life and independence.’
In the four months the COVID-19 Support Fund ran, it awarded £1.45 million in grants, roughly the same as the RCN Foundation gives out in a year.
‘We were overwhelmed with applications,’ says Ms Korea.
The main reason for hardship, cited by nearly 35% of applicants, was the need to self-isolate and its impact on pay.
Having to shield and a partner’s loss of income were among other common reasons for making an application.
Emma* is an intensive care nurse who, after seeing many patients die with COVID-19, began to struggle.
She applied to the RCN Foundation for a grant from the Stelios Says Thank You Awards.
Successful in her application, she used the grant to help cover the cost of counselling to improve her mental health and well-being.
‘The past seven weeks have seen me endure sleepless nights and severe anxiety about work and about getting infected and bringing COVID-19 home to my partner,’ Emma says.
‘It has been heart-breaking to see so many people die and to see my colleagues break down.
‘I have started regular therapy to try and cope with what I’ve seen. This grant will go towards ongoing therapy, which is costly but is crucial for me in order to go the distance in this marathon.’
A striking feature of applicants to the COVID-19 Support Fund was the number from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Of the 3,286 successful applications, 81.5% were from nursing staff from minority ethnic backgrounds, mostly black African. By comparison, white British applicants accounted for 8.3% of the total.
‘The pandemic has underlined and exacerbated existing inequalities faced by health and care staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds’
Deepa Korea, director, RCN Foundation
This significant disparity in applications from nursing and midwifery staff did not come as a surprise, says Ms Korea.
‘Staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately represented at lower pay bands and so the risk of them falling into hardship was always going to be much higher.
‘The pandemic has underlined and exacerbated existing inequalities faced by these health and care staff. Our data provides yet more evidence of the need for action to tackle these inequalities.’
The best advice for anyone facing money problems is to seek assistance early. Fortunately, there are several sources of help and support and the RCN lists many of them on its website, which also has advice on a range of topics, from food banks to funeral costs.
The RCN site also includes guidance on entitlements and support for those facing reduced income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Specific guidance is available on a range of financial issues, including:
» Advice for those facing eviction or struggling with rent or mortgage payments
» Benefits for agency and bank nurses
» Problems with overdrafts, loans and credit cards
» Struggles with motor finance
The RCN Foundation is continuing to support members of the nursing profession during the pandemic, even though the COVID-19 Support Fund and the Stelios Says Thank You Awards are now closed. Hardship grants are available to current and former nurses, midwives and healthcare support workers, and sometimes nursing students. tinyurl.com/RCN-grants.
The RCN Lamplight Support Service supports those in the nursing community who are facing financial pressures. The service provides tailored advice and information on a range of topics. tinyurl.com/RCN-lamplight-help
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust helps nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants, working and retired, who have personal or financial hardship. The charity offers a range of financial assistance including help with financial emergencies, buying essential white goods, rent deposits and removal costs. Students are not eligible for grants. cavellnursestrust.org
Turn2us is a national charity that provides support to people facing difficult times. It has a webpage dedicated to helping those affected by the pandemic to access benefits, grants and other help. tinyurl.com/turn2us-COVID
Meanwhile, for paediatric nurse Carrie, a grant from the RCN Foundation was a lifesaver.
‘I’m not sure what I would have done without it,’ she says. ‘The money provided me with much-needed relief at one of the most difficult times of my life.’
Asif is also grateful. His car was fixed and the grant he was given meant that, for a while at least, he didn’t have to worry about the cost of petrol. ‘The long commute and work hours have taken a physical toll on me, but I am determined to continue because my community needs me and I want to help.
‘This grant will make sure I can get on with my work.’
*All names of grant recipients have been changed
Nursing at work, caring at home: advice, tips and your workplace rights rcni.com/nurse-carers