Why British nurses voted to strike for the first time

IIt was late last Thursday when Naomi Fullen Somers, a young nurse at Darbyshire Community Health Services, finished caring for her latest patient. The 23-year-old was used to working overtime most days of the week, but that day’s shift was particularly long and stressful.

As she walked to her car, she looked at a notification that popped up on her phone. It was a message from the Royal College of Nursing, which read: “Nursing staff have voted to strike at the majority of NHS employers in the UK.”

Somers breathed a sigh of relief: “I just thought, ‘Thank God,’ because things really have to change,” she recalled.

For the first time in 106 years, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has decided to strike after a strike action ballot was held last week with more than 300,000 union members demanding better pay and citing patient safety concerns . The RCN expects nurses in most of the state’s National Health Services, as well as many of the country’s biggest hospitals, to take part in the strikes, which are expected to start before the end of this year.

“Anger has turned to action – our members say enough is enough,” RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said in statement. “Our members will no longer tolerate financial knife-edge at home and rough dealing at work.”

Nurses hold placards outside the Royal College of Nursing in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, following the government's announcement of the NHS pay proposal on July 21, 2021. (Jonathan Brady—PA Wire/AP)

Nurses hold placards outside the Royal College of Nursing in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, following the government’s announcement of the NHS pay proposal on 21 July 2021.

Jonathan Brady—PA Wire/AP

With the cost of living in the UK rising due to 10% inflation and energy bills, the RCN’s decision to strike has fueled fears that an unprecedented wave of public sector industrial action – including health and public transport – will sweep the nation this winter.

As well as acute work pressures, the RCN cited poor nurse retention as contributing to staff shortages across the UK

25,000 nurses across the country have left the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register in the past year, along with 47,000 vacant NHS nursing posts. It claims the shortage is largely due to poor pay: after NHS Agenda for Change pay announcements earlier this year, nurses are 20% worse off in real terms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and 16% worse in Scotland than ten years ago, According to to researchers from London Economics.

“What happened is that year after year, nurses and public sector workers suffered a gradual erosion, thanks to wage freezes or wage increases of less than 1%,” explained Gavan Gavan Conlon, co-author of the study , commissioned by the RCN . “To be honest, it’s a pretty shocking state of affairs over such a long period of time.”

In response, the campaign for fair pay for nurses is calling for a pay rise of 5% above inflation, which is expected to cost £9 billion, or nearly $10 billion – a demand the government says is “simply unworkable”.

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The nurses’ strike is expected to significantly disrupt a health system already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, acute staff shortages and significant underinvestment by the government. The system currently sees a record seven million patients on waiting lists for hospital treatment.

“We are all extremely grateful for the hard work and dedication of NHS staff, including nurses, and deeply regret that some union members have voted for strike action,” Health Secretary Steve Barclay said in a public announcement statement.

For Somers, the decision to go on strike was not easy. “I know it’s not in a nurse’s nature to go on strike… But I think our voices need to be heard,” she said. “I don’t think the general public and the government fully understand that it’s not just about pay. It’s about more than that.”

The young graduate became a nurse just two months ago, inspired to take up the profession after seeing her grandmother receive good care at the hospice. But soon after she started work, the strain of breastfeeding became apparent and overwhelming, she said. “It was so busy on my first shift in trauma that I remember thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into?’

“If I had more resources, I could provide patients with higher quality care,” Somers continued.

Protesters from the Royal College of Nursing demonstrate outside the Conservative Party conference at the ICC in Birmingham, England, on October 3.  (Rui Vieira—AP)

Protesters from the Royal College of Nursing demonstrate outside the Conservative Party conference at the ICC in Birmingham, England, on October 3.

Rui Vieira—AP

The decision to go on strike did not come easily to Siobhan Aston in Scotland either. The 43-year-old, who has worked as a rehabilitation nurse for almost a decade, was pushed out of line after spending all of last year working in an understaffed COVID-19 unit.

“It was a juggling act for management on a daily basis to figure out how to care for covid patients,” she recalled. “On top of that you had a lot of staff coming into contact with covid so it was a very stressful time.”

“I think a lot of what we’re doing is very underrated,” she added, saying all other ways to get the government to listen to nurses’ concerns have been exhausted.

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Last Wednesday Oliver DowdenCabinet Minister and Spokesman for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak, told reporters that the government would strike a balance between the “crucial role” nurses play and the fiscal challenges facing the country, adding that contingency plans were in place for any “staffing impact”. caused by strike action, such as the NHS prioritizing the most essential services. However, he acknowledged that it would have an impact on other activities, including elective surgery.

But London Economics’ Conlon argued that the cost of filling vacancies using temporary staffing agencies was more expensive in the long run than paying nurses higher wages. “It’s a pretty shocking additional cost to the exchequer,” he said, “which is not worth the loss of nurses and their institutional expertise.”

Although she supports the strike, Somers, the young nurse in Derbyshire, also feels anxiety at the thought of lost income. “I don’t think it will dissuade me from going on strike, but I know it will have a huge impact on the daily lives of many nurses,” she said.

However, not closing the pay gap can have even worse consequences: “Given that so many people have already left nursing in the last few years, I would like to stay in the profession because it’s my passion.” , she claims.

“But if the cost of living continues to rise and nurses’ pay doesn’t increase accordingly, I may have to consider other options.”

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