‘We’re striking for the safety of our patients’: Nurses on the biggest strike in NHS history

‘Why would you want to work for an organisation that’s not listening to you and not recognising the hard work that you do?’

Nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland have taken part in the biggest strikes in NHS history today amid their ongoing battle to improve their pay and working conditions.

Nurses are asking for a 19 per cent pay rise, which is a five per cent rise above inflation. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) argue successive real-term pay cuts means experienced nurses are 20 per cent worse off than they were in 2010.

The government has offered nurses a five per cent increase with health minister, Maria Caulfield describing the 19 per cent figure as “unrealistic”.

All this means, nurses have walked out over their pay for the first time in history with hospitals operating a bank holiday-style service.

The most serious services are exempt from the strike with the RCN confirming it will staff emergency cancer services, chemotherapy, dialysis, and critical care units as normal. However thousands of other scheduled procedures and services have been affected and are also set to be affected when nurses strike again next Tuesday.

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Why are nurses striking?

On Monday night, Royal College of Nursing general secretary, Pat Cullen, met with the health secretary, Steve Barclay, for emergency talks to discuss a way out of the strikes.

Pat said she went into that meeting needing to discuss pay improvements with the government to “show nursing staff why they should not strike this week”.

“I asked several times to discuss pay and each time we returned to the same thing – that there was no extra money on the table, and that they would not be discussing pay with me,” she said.

The union boss accused the government of “belligerence” and said she “expressed [her] deep disappointment.”

The Royal College of Nursing therefore felt they were left with no choice but to go on strike. This has affected approximately a a quarter of hospitals in England, every hospital in Wales and all bar one in Northern Ireland.

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How much are nurses actually paid?

Nurses pay varies on the experience of the nurse and the number of years they have worked. On average, NHS nurses earn around £35,000 per year.

This means the the below inflation pay rise of 4 per cent, the government is offering nurses works out at £1,400 on average.

When compared globally, nurses in Germany, Australia and the US all earn more than UK nurses.

Institute for Fiscal Studies senior economist, Ben Zaranko explained: “It’s clear that NHS nurse pay has fallen over the past decade or so.

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“What we’ve also seen is their pay fail to keep pace with not just inflation, it’s also not kept pace with either what’s happening to pay in the private sector, or what’s happening to average pay in the public sector.”

The effect of this is nurses are leaving the NHS like never before and there is a record high of nurse shortages in the NHS, currently estimated to be almost 47,000.

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Figures from the King’s Fund showed between June 2021 and June 2022, 7,000 more nurses left their job than the previous year. The largest increase in nurses leaving their jobs is among younger nurses.

Speaking to The Tab, Eva a student nurse at UWE warned prospective student nurses to “do their research thoroughly” because it is “far from sunshine and roses”.

What have nurses said?

Speaking from a picket line outside Bristol Royal Infirmary this morning, Paula Byrne, a nurse specialist, said: “I’ve been a nurse for 40 years next year and I have real concerns, among myself and my colleagues, about the future of nursing.

”You’re seeing burnouts, you’re seeing thousands of nurse leaving the profession.

”What we have seen over the last ten years is austerity, austerity measures, public sector pay cuts, rising costs and we find that nurses now their daily living and quality of living has gone downhill.”

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Daniel Tumino, a senior nurse in neo natal intensive care, added: ”We’re striking for our safety and the safety of our patients.

”The pay is getting very low, specially in my unit, we’re losing nurses day to day.

”We used to be made up on 150 nurses looking after 32 beds, but in the last three year’s we’ve had to drop down to 24 beds due to nurses leaving – because we only have 110 nurses now.

”This is the smallest we’ve ever been [in terms of bed spaces], we’re not going to lose more beds but we’re going to cope – we have to cope with the beds we have.

”We’ve cut down to 24 beds and have started refusing patients. There are other NHS trusts all over the south of England want to send patients to us because it’s the only surgical cardiac neo natal unit and we have to refuse them patients because we don’t have space.

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”They have to send them to Birmingham, London, Manchester instead. We have babies we have to send all over the country because we don’t have space – but when there aren’t spaces elsewhere, we just have to cope.

”People are getting stressed and tried, sometimes you think I cannot do this anymore. It’s impacting our will to come to work – why should I come to work when there is no support.

”I would like a pay rise equal to inflation, that’s all. They’ve not been doing that for 12 years. Last year we got a 3% pay rise and they took of 2% for national insurance – so they gave 3% and took 2%, it’s not right.”

Alongside professional nurses, student nurses have also joined the strikes.

19-year-old Eva told The Tab: “Today I am striking because the NHS is falling apart.

“I am a student nurse who will work up to 12 weeks of unpaid placement. During this placement I’m treated as though I am a healthcare assistant. I will work up to 40 hours this week, with no recognition and no money in the bank.

“I have been a student on a ward where there were only three nurses for a ward of over 30 patients. Some of the patients are high risk and enhanced care and there is just simply not the staff to help these patients.

“On that day, myself and another student nurse had to complete all washes on the ward, do manual handling movements alone. I had no break and was not paid.

“Without student nurses, the wards would not run.”

Esme, who is also a second year nursing student at UWE said: “I am striking for patient safety mainly. Almost every shift we are looking after too many patients then we should be because the wards are understaffed.

“I often feel I leave a shift feeling like I haven’t done the best for my patients which is a horrible feeling.”

She added: “I still go in and try my best for the patients because it’s part of my training and I do love nursing. However, we are often counted in the numbers and treated unfairly and I think we deserve better.

“I want to see a change. I am sick of seeing the nurses struggling, and it’s about time something is done to stop this. They save people’s lives at the end of the day, how can you sit there and say they don’t deserve it?”

Featured image via SWNS.

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