Nurses who are feeling “hurt” and “disrespected” by the government’s latest NHS pay award have spoken to Nursing Times about the potential for strike action.
There was an agreement among interviewees that there had been “a shift in mood” across NHS staff who are now ready to act.
““We will be striking for our patients and the future of the NHS, as well as ourselves”
But the situation was also causing “inner turmoil” for one nurse who said they felt the government was “forcing” them to consider striking.
In recent weeks unions, including the Royal College of Nursing and Unison, have announced a series of consultative industrial action ballots are to be held in the coming months in England, Wales and Scotland over the 2022-23 pay deals.
In England and Wales, the deal will see most nurses on Agenda for Change (AfC) contracts given an uplift of £1,400 – in line with the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendations.
Meanwhile, those in Scotland have been given a 5% pay increase and nurses in Northern Ireland remain in pay limbo amid government budget uncertainties.
Nursing Times has created a breakdown of the situation across the UK, with further information and union commentary.
Holly Turner, a registered nurse and founder of the NHS Workers Say No campaign group, described how amid worsening staff shortages and rising inflation, the latest pay awards were “insulting”.
She told Nursing Times how some colleagues had been “hopeful that the government might pay attention” to workforce issues in this year’s pay round, but they had been disappointed.
Ms Turner said she was aware of nurses who were “only eating one meal a day” and struggling to put fuel in their cars to get to work.
On top of “staff suffering”, she reflected on the pressures and demands on services, especially among A&E and acute settings.
“The government just don’t seem to be addressing this crisis at all. So, I think it’s incredibly frustrating and I’m not surprised that NHS workers are getting ready to strike,” she told Nursing Times.
When asked if there was appetite for strike action among the profession, Ms Turner said: “Yes, absolutely. There has been a shift in mood across all Bands.”
Nurses and colleagues “need to be inspired” by industrial action taken in the past, including what happened in Northern Ireland when nurses took to the picket lines in 2019 and successfully fought for pay parity, she said.
To those concerned about patients being potentially put at risk if strikes were to go ahead, Ms Turner said it would be “planned safely” and that appropriate procedures would be put in place.
“My answer would always be, if people say striking is putting patients at risk, I’d say ‘they are at risk now’,” she said.
With vacancies exceeding 100,000 across the health service, she added: “A short, planned period of industrial action, which is done safely, is much better for our patients than leaving things as they are.”
“If we do nothing, things are only going to get worse. If we do nothing, things will remain the same and the same is not safe for anyone,” she said.
“We will be striking for our patients and the future of the NHS, as well as ourselves.”
Also speaking to Nursing Times was nurse practitioner Carmel O’Boyle, who said she was “furious that the government’s disregard for the nursing profession has stooped to these levels”.
Ms O’Boyle, who is the chair of the RCN’s Greater Liverpool & Knowsley Branch and chair of the RCN’s North West Board, said there were health professionals in her region who were “using food banks” and “terrified” for the winter months ahead amid increased energy bills.
“The fact that we are even considering strike action shows how dire the situation is,” she added.
She also echoed how patients were currently being put “in danger because there are not enough nurses and health professionals to care for them”.
“We will never achieve appropriate staffing levels without fair pay,” added Ms O’Boyle.
Meanwhile, Craig Davidson, a senior health nurse in Scotland and former Nursing Times student editor, said he felt “hurt”, as well as “disappointed and disrespected” by this year’s pay offer.
He said he was “really worried about strike action” and that it was causing “inner turmoil” because it was making him question his values as a nurse and as a person.
“The last thing I ever want to do is to walk away and abandon patients, particularly in my role,” said Mr Davidson, who supports newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees.
“It’s not their fault that the government is continually disrespecting and devaluing the profession of nurses.”
However, he agreed that “something seems to have fundamentally shifted” and nurses were prepared to take action.
“I think this really feels like the time, people have just had enough,” he told Nursing Times.
Staffing numbers across the system are “so depleted” that it is “now becoming unsafe for patients”, added Mr Davidson.
“We are providing potentially unsafe care as nurses in various different settings, when that’s the last thing we want to do. The government is forcing us to do this,” he said.
“So, the government is forcing me to consider strike action.”
The RCN’s industrial action handbook provides useful information on what it involves, how it is initiated and organised and how nurses can safely participate.
It includes an outline of the different types of action that can be taken, such as action short of strike, also known as working to rule. This means a staff member works strictly to the terms of their contract of employment, including by starting and finishing their shifts on time and taking all contractual breaks.
Meanwhile, strike action involves a complete withdrawal of labour from the workplace. The length of strike action depends on the dispute.
Speaking about the potential outcomes of balloting, RCN chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen, said: “Industrial action can take many forms and is always a last resort for nursing staff.
“Any action will be carefully planned to protect patients, but we have been forced into this by ministers who have consistently failed to support nursing staff.”
She added: “We proved we can strike safely and effectively in Northern Ireland.
“Make no mistake – if nursing staff are on the picket line, they have been pushed so far beyond the pay and conditions any worker would consider fair or reasonable.
“Ministers’ failure to tackle the workforce crisis is putting patients at risk and has left nursing with no choice but to consider strike action.”
Governments across the four UK nations were contacted for comment.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our NHS Agenda for Change workforce – like nursing and midwifery staff, porter staff, and therapy staff – are at a record high level and have long had the best pay and conditions in the UK.
“We’re demonstrating our commitment to ensuring that continues to be the case.
“We are looking to re-engage with trade unions as soon as we can, and hope to reach a satisfactory outcome.”