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Health, Sports & Psychology

Has COVID-19 changed the public perception of nursing?

Updated Monday, 9th November 2020

Reflecting so far, 2020 and the unfortunate arrival of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has certainly given the Year of the Nurse, a unique position on the global health stage. Dr Rebecca Garcia, Lecturer in Nursing at The Open University, looks at the importance of nursing.

This time last year, The World Health Organisation was making plans to raise the profile of nursing across the world, in order to celebrate Florence Nightingales 200th anniversary and to increase the global workforce. However, in December 2019, Coronavirus made an appearance initially in Wuhan, then worldwide, demanding attention from the public, health staff and governments across the world.

In the UK, the NHS responded by realigning to meet the anticipated large numbers of acutely ill patients, with nurses rapidly trained and/or redeployed to meet the demand of COVID-19 cases. Third year student nurses were asked to volunteer to help with extended practice hours; while a further 10,000 ex-nurses returned to the profession to support the pandemic effort (Ford, 2020)[i]. The health and social care sector, and NHS received positive public attention, as never seen before. NHS and social care employees have seen a wealth of commercial privileges to acknowledge their valued contribution in saving lives during COVID-19. 

The latest data from UCAS revealed a welcome increase of 15% in applications to nursing undergraduate courses (compared to 2019) in the UK, with England reporting increases of 23%

The media reported on the unfolding pandemic, capturing nurses from a variety of settings, from nursing and residential homes, to highly specialised environments, such as intensive care. These media reports revealed to the public, first-hand, the reality of the nursing profession in 2020, the interviews revealed the extent of the nurses compassion, professionalism and specialist knowledge. This previously and often-unseen perspective from inside hospitals and caring facilities was a refreshing insight that positioned nursing at the heart of patient-centred care during the COVID-19 crisis.

This was a very different portrayal of nursing, from previous media coverages, which has historically portrayed nurses in a subordinate role to (often male) doctors, as their ‘handmaiden’ and other negative stereotypes (Bridges, 2004; Gordon and Nelson, 2005). Prior to COVID-19, the majority of the public had little awareness of what nurses actually did, unless they were in the unfortunate position to be unwell themselves or be in close contact with a family/friend who was receiving treatment. Few people understood that nurses today, are degree trained and highly skilled practitioners.

It is widely accepted that there are just not enough nurses, yet, figures are showing that numbers of qualified nurses have risen slowly over recent years. As of May 2020, there were 302,923 registered nurses and health visitors employed across NHS Trusts in the UK (Workforce Statistics, 2020), with growing numbers of male applicants. Furthermore, the latest data from UCAS revealed a welcome increase of 15% in applications to nursing undergraduate courses (compared to 2019) in the UK, with England reporting increases of 23%. With an unexpected increase of 26% from male applicants. 

It’s essential that we maintain the momentum of a more accurate portrayal of nursing, keeping the importance of nursing and its standing as a skilled profession at the top of the agenda in parliament, within the sector and generally as past, present or potential patients. Let us not forget what nurses really do - not just during the pandemic but, also when moving into the future as we learn to live in a new world alongside COVID-19.



Bridges, J. M. (2004) ‘Literature review on the images of the nurse and nursing in the media’, Journal of Advanced Nursing. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 15(7), pp. 850–854. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.1990.tb01917.x.

Cook, T., Kursumovic, E and Leanne, S. (2020) Deaths of NHS staff from COVID-19 analysied. Health Service Journal. (accessed 22nd June 2020).

Ford, M. (2020) ‘Milestone moment’ as 10,000 join emergency NMC register | Nursing TimesNursing Times. Available at: (Accessed: 24 April 2020).

Gordon, S. and Nelson, S. (2005) ‘An end to angels’, American Journal of Nursing. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, pp. 62–69. doi: 10.1097/00000446-200505000-00031.

Hoeve, Y. ten, Jansen, G. and Roodbol, P. (2014) ‘The nursing profession: Public image, self-concept and professional identity. A discussion paper’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 70(2), pp. 295–309. doi: 10.1111/jan.12177.

NHS Workforce Statistics - May 2020 - NHS Digital (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 8th September 2020).

The World Health Organisation (2020) Year of the Nurse and the Midwife 2020. Available at:

(Bridges, 2004)(Gordon and Nelson, 2005)(The World Health Organisation, 2020)(Hoeve, Jansen and Roodbol, 2014)(NHS Workforce Statistics - January 2020 - NHS Digital, no date)(Ford, 2020).

[i] Please note, figures were correct at the time of writing: 25 September 2020.



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