MINISTERS are under pressure to take action to provide frontline student parametics with vital financial assistance with their studies and help end an ambulance service staffing "crisis".

Over 200 student frontline paramedics with the support of union leaders have launched a campaign calling for a bursary equal to the £10,000 nurses and midwives in Scotland saying many are living below the poverty line due to a lack of financial support.

In January, paramedic students in England and Wales along with radiographers and physiotherapists were among those receiving a £5000 a year maintenance grant from the UK government from September.

Extra payments worth up to £3,000 per academic year will be available for eligible students.

But campaigners are saying there is no support for paramedics in Scotland despite working full time with the Ambulance Service on placement during the pandemic. This means many have to take second jobs and others live below the poverty line.

Figures from January revealed that Scotland’s ambulance service was battling a staff crisis amid evidence that it failed to cover more than 42,000 shifts.

The disclosure, made under freedom of information legislation, provoked anger from opposition politicians who claimed the service is under-funded with a potential impact on public safety.

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There were concerns that paramedics and ambulance staff were having to take more time off sick due to anxiety, stress and depression, meaning there are fewer crews for ambulances.

The Scottish Conservatives asked the ambulance service to disclose how many shifts were rostered and filled in each of the last three years. In 2016-17, of 335,168 shifts, 322,054 were filled, with a shortfall of 13,114. In 2017-18, the shortfall was 16,134 and last year it was 13,568.

Union leaders have supported their campaign.

GMB Scottish Ambulance Service branch president Ross Herbert said: "The paramedic profession is evolving and the requirement for full-time education means that students face a significant financial burden in order to complete their studies.

"Students in other professions such as nursing and midwifery receive a bursary in order to support them in their studies.The paramedic profession should be no different. GMB are therefore calling on the Scottish Government to create a bursary which will provide much needed financial support to help the frontline of the future."

UNISON Scottish Ambulance Service national convenor Stevie Gilroy added: "I would go a step further and would call upon the Scottish Government to help secure the future of the NHS by putting in place a bursary scheme that is open to all allied health professionals.

"We should be celebrating people choosing a career in the NHS, not penalising them with a student debt. We should have them focus on their studies so they can be the best they can be, not have them pick up part time jobs to make ends meet."

Erin Houghton, a third year student paramedic at Glasgow Caledonian University says she has to rely on a £5000 a year student loan over the past two years.

"I have to follow a strict money plan or else I risk not being able to eat some weeks, and even then, that's a budget based off one meal a day.

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"It's difficult to get a job since nowhere can really accommodate for my time on placements, and I can rarely afford to socialise with friends. It's been extremely difficult trying to make my way through this course since most of my time is spent stressing about money, instead of stressing about the usual things like exams.

"The constant financial stress has certainly done no favours for my mental health, and this bursary would significantly, if not completely, alleviate most of the stresses on me and my mental health. I would be able to afford to eat more than one meal a day and actually be able to socialise with friends, instead of living as this hermit-like person I've become."

The Pay Student Paramedics Campaign said the exams regrading fiasco showed that the Scottish Government should "spend more time listening to students instead of working against them".

A spokesman said: "Many student paramedics have worked on the frontlines of the pandemic for the Scottish Ambulance Service. When Covid-19 was at its peak student paramedics stepped up to serve their communities. They shouldered the risks of working in the health service during a crisis, and answered the call for help.

"Student paramedics are the next generation of frontline workers, working alongside regular ambulance crews assisting in caring for the public. Right now hundreds of them are working for the people of Scotland - and they deserve to be supported whilst doing so. As things stand, they have to juggle work and education without the financial help they need.

"There is already a shortage of paramedics in Scotland with over 42,000 shifts not being covered in recent years. Without proper funding for student paramedics this shortfall is likely to continue."

The estimate that a student paramedic bursary would cost less than 1% of the Scottish Government's budget for healthcare.

"In a time of pandemic and with an aging population in Scotland it is more important than ever that we have a fully staffed and operational Ambulance Service. Without this funding for Student Paramedics some will not be able to complete the course and the already existing shortages will grow," said the spokesman.

In March whistleblowers said that paramedics treating potential virus patients risked their lives every day due to a shortage of protective kit.

Managers were told a crippling lack of masks and suits meant NHS staff face being sprayed by infectious particles during life-saving responses.

Paul Gowans, the Scottish Ambulance Service’s strategic commander subsequently acknowledged the “understandable concern” of staff dealing with the unprecedented health crisis.

In a video message he hailed mercy crews’ “amazing work”, he added: “Be rest assured we are being led by the science on this and the best evidence that’s currently available is driving everything to protect your safety and wellbeing."

NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly said: "Student paramedics across Scotland have stepped up to support the NHS in our time of need. They deserve our support. NUS Scotland stands firmly behind our student paramedics in their call for a bursary."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government approach to supporting students is predicated upon our commitment to a system of free tuition for undergraduate students.   

“Although paramedic science students in England will receive a bursary, they must still pay up to £9,250 per year in tuition fees – which students studying in Scotland do not.    

“Therefore the package of support for paramedic students is worth more than the £5,000 announced by the UK Government and funding for student financial support is currently at its highest level.

“Paramedic students already receive financial support to cover travel expenses to placements, health and disclosure checks and uniforms.”