“We owe you more than words can say,」 総理大臣 told my colleagues on International Nurses Day last year. He said we were modern-day Florence Nightingales, and thanked us for what we were doing in the pandemic. 明らかに, talk is cheap – and in this case not just cheap, but free. Because although the government is claiming to be thanking nurses in England for our hard work with a 3% pay rise, that increase turns out to be a cut.
That’s because the cost of living is going up for everyone – but also because the cost of being a nurse is soaring too. Registration fees with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which we all have to pay, have increased, but it’s little things too. I’m a mental health nurse, and new rules mean we now wear uniforms, which have to be specially laundered. Every working day I’m running a hot wash just for my uniform, which could have Covid-carrying particles on it, and naturally that means every day my energy bill goes that little bit higher.
That’s just one way that the pandemic has made the issue of poor pay so much worse. Childcare has become increasingly expensive, and with kids in nursery being put in bubbles which then have to attend at specific times, shift workers are left often needing flexible childcare they can’t afford. These things make the cost of being a nurse so high.
Other kinds of costs are going up too. I work with 11- to 17-year-olds with serious mental health problems, and every week we have several new referrals. It might be several teenagers across the county with severe eating disorders requiring tube feeding, or intensive support at mealtimes, another two or three who are severely self-harming and won’t leave their room, even to attend school, or a young person with autism and psychosis in crisis. As healthcare professionals, we desperately want to help them all, but we just don’t have the beds and staff. COVID, and now the “pingdemic」, make that so much worse. Many children being cared for in the community should really be in a hospital bed.
When resources are tight, patients suffer – but nurses do too. I can hear it in my colleagues’ voices when they discuss how hard it is to be confronted by such unhappiness. We work as hard as we can, until we are utterly worn out, both physically and emotionally. How can we avoid burning out, when we can’t afford childcare? When some of us depend on food banks? I have colleagues without children who can’t afford to rent anywhere near the hospital, so they live in nurses’ accommodation on-site. That’s tough enough in normal times, but they have spent the past year and a half living in a single room, totally unable to escape the pandemic. I really cannot stress this enough: many of us are very, very close to breaking.
And yet the government thinks we deserve a real-terms pay cut. Just listen to the cabinet ministers asking why nurses should get a pay rise when other workers are struggling. The people leading the country trying to divide us. Of course, there are those whose pay the government is happy to boost. Those friends of ministers who secured PPE contracts despite having no experience in the field are doing fine.
I felt unspeakably glad when a YouGov poll commissioned by my campaign group, Nurses United, revealed that three-quarters of people supported a 10% pay rise for nursing staff, and nearly eight out of 10 supported annual pay rises above inflation. I knew then that with the public’s support we could push the government further than their derisory initial pay offer of 1%.
Over my 15 years of nursing, I’ve had a real-terms pay cut, as my yearly “increases” have failed to keep up with inflation. It’s not just me. Since the Conservatives got into government, newly qualified nurses have had a 20% real-terms pay cut. That’s why our campaign for a 15% pay rise really isn’t such a big ask.
If nurses were paid what we deserved, it would benefit everyone. Those living in hospital accommodation would be able to afford their own flat, they’d be able to unwind after work and they’d be just that little bit more ready for a tough shift the next day. So many nurses, especially the ones with mountains of student debt, worry about how they’ll pay the bills. They do a great job already, but it stands to reason that if they did not have to cope with that stress, they could do an even better job. When you’re not worrying about things like that, you’re calmer and make decisions quicker.
We know what we’re fighting for. The government knows we are committed to caring for people and it is using that against us, thinking we’ll take this pay cut lying down. But there are talks about industrial action going on right now. We wouldn’t do that without understanding the consequences: it would be very tough to take strike action. But we supported junior doctors when they went on strike and we’d expect to get their support and that of all other healthcare workers this time around.