“So, we’re being conscripted?”
On Tuesday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that 5,500 final year medical students would be joining the frontline of the NHS. On hearing this news, I rushed down the stairs of my flat to my equally bewildered housemates. We had just finished six years of medical school and had completed our hurriedly reorganised final exams remotely. But we weren’t supposed to officially qualify and start as doctors until August. NHS staff shortages and a hugely increased demand for care mean that we will be reaching for the scrubs early.
Starting on the lowest rungs, “foundation training” is the term for the first two years working as a doctor and serves as the culmination of a journey spanning over half a decade of medical school. Becoming a doctor is a dream I have had since I was 14 years old. But I can think of few things more nightmarish than starting my career in the middle of a global pandemic.
I certainly feel a strong moral obligation to assist however possible in the midst of this unprecedented struggle. Many medical students, including those at my university, have completed their final examinations and were already actively seeking ways to volunteer before this was announced.
This sense of duty is nonetheless matched by fear and trepidation. A lack of testing means many healthcare workers are self-isolating at a time when demand looks set to soar. There is an overwhelming sense that the health service is heading towards a cliff edge, about to experience several months that will dwarf the winter crisis that has become an annual occurrence.
Indeed, despite being highly trained, foundation doctors – the most junior of junior doctors in a hospital – still require significant senior supervision to support their development. I worry that the approaching challenges could place myself or one of my peers in a position where that support is not available, risking jeopardising patient safety through no fault of our own.
Meanwhile, rumours continue to filter through of the “previously fit and well” patients now finding themselves on ventilators and I question if my colleagues’ pleas for adequate personal protective equipment will continue to fall on deaf ears.
I speak to my dad, who’s back in Grimsby, on the phone. “Stephen, it’s like the war. You need to roll your sleeves up and get to work.” He’s right. Our medical schools would not graduate us, nor would the General Medical Council register us to work, if they had any doubts about our competence. We’re not being conscripted, but this does feel like a battle in which we all have our part to play. I, for one, am ready.
• Stephen Naulls is a final-year medical student at Imperial College London