Last week 77-year-old patient Catherine Poole told the prime minister what we at the RCN have been stating to the UK government for years – that nursing must be paid fairly in recognition of the complexity and expertise of what we do.
When Mr Sunak said that he and his colleagues had the matter in hand, she replied: “No, you’re not trying, you need to try harder.”
“All have failed to address the workforce crisis and give nursing staff the pay rise they deserve”
This public display of support goes a long way for us in the nursing profession, especially as we await the results of our strike ballot on nursing pay.
It came on the same day as new our research, undertaken by London Economics, revealed that a 20% real-terms pay cut over the last decade means that experienced nurses are effectively working one day a week for free.
Despite the rhetoric from governments across the UK, the reality is nursing staff continue to be exploited.
Over the last few weeks, during our strike ballot, I visited many workplaces and talked to some of the members voting.
None will have been shocked by these findings. They told me how they feel taken for granted every time they turn up to work as shifts are rarely fully staffed.
Some told me they never finished on time because of the volume of work. And many said they’ve just come to accept this, that they’re resigned to it being part of the job.
But this situation is putting the patients in their care at risk – and this situation is something which can’t – and mustn’t – continue.
We are now on the UK government’s fifth health secretary in five years. Each one has seen the warnings about the crisis in the nursing workforce, each one has seen the waiting lists grow and each one has seen nurses leaving the profession in their tens of thousands.
We now have a chancellor who once said that “we now face the greatest workforce crisis in history in the NHS” and that “persistent understaffing in the NHS poses a serious risk to staff and patient safety.”
Yet, all have failed to address the workforce crisis and give nursing staff the pay rise they deserve.
Our research also showed that decreases in real-terms salaries are strongly associated with nursing staff leaving the profession, leading to significant costs to the NHS of staff turnover.
There are around 47,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone and in the last year 25,000 nursing staff left the UK register.
There is also a strong economic argument for giving nursing staff a significant pay rise. The research found that the Exchequer would recoup 81% of the costs of a pay increase for nursing staff, in terms of higher tax receipts and savings on future recruitment and retention costs. This is surely very simple math.
Right now, patient care is at risk because the failure to invest in nursing. Record waiting lists, people being treated in corridors, and ambulances waiting outside hospitals feels like normality. Patients are avoiding the NHS.
With results of our strike ballot imminent, Mr Sunak should pay attention to Ms Poole and the UK public – two-thirds of which back nurses taking strike action.
At his first Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Sunak said he will “always support our hard-working nurses”. Let’s hope he lives up to his word. Nursing deserves better and patients deserve better.
Helen Whyley, director of nursing (interim), Royal College of Nursing