“W“I owe you more than words can say,” the Prime Minister told my colleagues on International Nurses Day last year. We’re modern-day Florence Nightingales, he said, and thanked us for what we’ve been doing in this pandemic. Talk is obviously cheap – and in this case it’s not just cheap, it’s free. Because although the government claims to thank the nurses in England for our hard work with a 3% increase in wages, this increase turns out to be a cut.
This is because the cost of living is going up for everyone – but also because the cost of working as a nurse is going up, too. The Nursing and Midwifery Board registration fee has increased, which we all have to pay, but it’s small things too. I’m a mental health nurse, and the new rules mean we now wear uniforms that have to be specially washed. Every work day, I wash only hot clothes for my uniform, which can contain COVID-carrying particles, which naturally means my energy bill goes up that little bit every day.
This is just one way the pandemic has made the issue of poor wages much worse. Childcare is becoming increasingly expensive, and with children in day care in bubbles and then having to show up at set times, shift workers are often left in need of flexible childcare that they cannot afford. These things make the cost of being a nurse very expensive.
Other types of costs are on the rise, too. I work with 11-17 year olds with serious mental health issues, and every week we have many new referrals. There may be many teens across the county with severe eating disorders that require tube feeding, extensive support at mealtimes, or two or three others who self-injure so badly that they won’t leave their room, or even to go to school, or a young person with Autism and psychosis in crisis. As healthcare professionals, we desperately want to help all of them, but we don’t have the family and the staff. Covid, and now the ‘pandemic’, are making it worse. Many children who receive care in the community really need to be in a hospital bed.
When resources are scarce, patients suffer — but so do nurses. I can hear it in the voices of my colleagues as they discuss how hard it is to face such unhappiness. We work as hard as we can, until we are completely tired, both physically and emotionally. How do we avoid burnout when we can’t afford childcare? When do some of us rely on food banks? I have colleagues who don’t have children who can’t afford rent anywhere near the hospital, so they live in the nurses’ residence on site. That’s hard enough in normal times, but they’ve spent the past year and a half living in one room, completely unable to escape the pandemic. I really can’t stress this enough: Many of us are very, very close to breaking up.
However, the government believes we deserve a real wage cut. Just listen to ministers asking why nurses should get a pay raise while other workers are struggling. The people who lead the country are trying to divide us. Of course, there are those the government is happy to increase their salaries. The Friends of Ministers who have been awarded contracts for PPE despite having no experience in the field are doing well.
I was thrilled when a YouGov poll commissioned by my constituency, Nurses United, revealed that three-quarters of people support a 10% pay increase for nursing staff, and nearly eight in 10 support annual wage increases above inflation. I knew then that with the public’s support we could push the government further than the meager 1% initial salary offer.
Over my 15 years of nursing, I’ve had a real pay cut, as the annual “increases” fail to keep pace with inflation. It’s not just me. Since the Conservatives entered government, newly qualified nurses’ pay has been cut by 20%. This is why our campaign for a 15% wage increase isn’t really a huge demand.
If nurses get paid what we deserve, it will benefit everyone. Those who live in hospital accommodation will be able to buy their own apartment, will be able to relax after work and will be more prepared for a tough shift the next day. Lots of nurses, especially those with mountains of student debt, worry about how to pay the bills. They’re already doing a great job, but it makes sense that if they didn’t have to deal with that pressure, they could do better. When you don’t worry about things like that, you are calmer and make faster decisions.
We know what we are fighting for. The government knows we are obligated to take care of the people and they are using that against us, thinking we are going to take this pay cut. But there is talk of an industrial strike going on now. We will not do this without understanding the consequences: it will be very difficult to strike. But we supported the junior doctors when they went on strike and we expect their support and the support of all healthcare workers this time around.