Health workers have finally been “pushed over the edge” after years of struggling with the same issues including overwork, poor pay and unsafe staffing, Unison’s health of nursing has said.
Stuart Tuckwood, chief nursing officer for Unison, has returned to the top nursing role at the union following a short stint at charity the Florence Nightingale Foundation.
On his return, during the week of the union’s annual Health Care Service Group Conference in Bournemouth, Mr Tuckwood said not much had changed in terms of the battles the union was fighting.
“I did this job for a few years before and, unfortunately, it’s the same problems which come up again and again,” he told Nursing Times.
“Many nurses don’t think an end is in sight for them, and it’s hard to pinpoint one individual problem as a focus.
“But a big one is the fact they’re working in understaffed clinical environments, without experienced colleagues while the pressure grows and grows.”
At the health conference, Unison members voted on and passed motions that addressed many of the problems that Mr Tuckwood was referring to.
Motions about pay, workload, safe staffing, mental health among Black NHS staff and the challenges for overseas nurses were all debated on.
More from the Unison health conference 2023
Unison members spoke about why they backed the latest NHS pay offer in England, while also voting to “call time” on the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) system, which many nurses feel is causing their wages to stagnate.
Another motion aimed at changing Unison’s future negotiating strategy to one of flat pay rates, as opposed to percentage-based ones, was also passed.
This, one healthcare assistant said, would mean future pay deals would better benefit people on lower pay bands.
Meanwhile, a motion calling for safer staffing levels – the primary issue, along with pay, which Mr Tuckwood said needed addressing – was voted through.
During the motion debate, Ketternig nurse Gamu Nyasoro said overstretched ward nurses go home “crying” and fearing that they had not been able to properly care for patients.
Ms Nyasoro said: “You go home thinking, ‘oh my god, the NMC will be knocking at my door saying I killed a patient.’”
Other motions and debates were also had about overtime, sick pay, and mental health for all NHS staff, including nurses.
The event, and Mr Tuckwood’s return to Unison, came amid some of the NHS’ largest-scale industrial action of all time.
Mr Tuckwood said he was happy union members, and nurses at large, were taking a stand, with recent strikes forcing pay deals where the UK Government said there was no money to give.
“While I’ve been away, a number of branches have taken industrial action,” he said.
“For years it’s felt like this was stirring, everyone getting demoralised, now it’s all suddenly boiled over.
“The trigger, really, has been the cost-of-living crisis. People were just about holding it together before and then suddenly they were struggling to fill up their cars or buy food, and you have hospitals now running food banks for staff.”
During a nurse roundtable at the Unison conference, Steve Jones, a mental health nurse from Stoke-on-Trent, described how some of his co-workers had been left “destitute” by cost hikes.
Mr Jones, backed up by several others, supported Mr Tuckwood’s comments regarding food banks, telling stories about how management-level nurses were having to set up food aid for staff.
Mr Tuckwood continued: “Everyone in the NHS is very caring, and will always put themselves second. They always do what they can to keep going.
“But when you’re dealing with pressure, and suddenly you’re looking at yourself getting dramatically poorer and have no respect from the government, you’re pushed over the edge.
“While it’s been difficult to hear about all the same problems again, it’s enthusing to hear and see how people are taking industrial action to do something about it.
“There’s a real hope which comes from that – the government previously said there’s no money and that there wouldn’t be a pay deal, but now they’ve been forced into one.
“Every year since 2010, we’ve talked about safe staffing levels and pay, and they’ve ignored us – but now we have forced them to listen.”
The conference closed on Wednesday afternoon with the union’s leadership promising to keep up the fight for better pay and conditions for nurses and other NHS staff.