An ethical dilemma.
Last month I watched my Royal College of Nursing colleagues give Jeremy Corbyn a standing ovation at the end of his speech to RCN Congress. I felt proud of the support they gave him.
But 24 hours earlier the RCN made a worrying announcement. They have been balloting nurses about the current pay crisis. 91% of nurses said they’d take industrial action short of a strike. 78% of members who completed the poll said they were prepared to go on strike. This is the first time in 101 years of the RCN that nurses have decided to strike.
I have been a qualified nurse for 40 years. Never in my career have I known nurses wanting to strike. We’ve previously protested about pay. As a student nurse in the 1970s, I and many of my off-duty colleagues marched through the streets of Exeter. I will never forget the reaction of some of the by-standers. Whilst the majority were supportive, some spat at us and accused us of killing patients by being on the march. Nurses were only allowed to march if off duty or given formal permission by a Matron. No patient care was affected by our actions. It took some time for my student nurse pay of £11 a week to improve!
RCN members have now voted at Congress to begin a summer of planned protests. And so they should. There is currently a 1% cap on public sector pay rises. Unless there is a change of government, this will continue until at least 2019-20. The effect being that the average nurse has suffered a real-terms pay cut of 14% since 2010. This is not acceptable. Nurses are now being forced to use food banks.
Our professional registration and indemnity insurance fees have risen. We have to pay these before we can work. Pay and conditions are worsening. Most nurses are now working long 12 hour shifts. When I started to train these had just been phased out, apart from Night Duty. We were told that such long shifts meant nurses were too tired and could make mistakes. Why is the same advice not valid now?
What can nurses do to highlight their plight? There are few actions they can take without jeopardising care. Working to rule, what would that involve? Not staying on after a shift has ended if there is an emergency? I guess some nurses if they have pressing family issues, such as collecting children from nursery, may feel they can’t stay on. But most nurses I know would willingly stay on to help. Not helping a patient in some extra way? I doubt it.
What would I do if I were still working in the NHS? I really don’t know. I would certainly ‘cover’ so more junior nurses can protest in some way. I suspect when it comes down to taking strike action, most nurses will be very reluctant. I went into nursing because I cared about people and wanted to learn how to help people get better. That still holds true for nurses today. The word vocation may be rarely heard, but nurses still care, deeply.
This current government knows this. It’s why they have treated nurses and other healthcare workers so disgracefully when it comes to pay and conditions. Theresa May did not even bother to acknowledge her invitation to the RCN Congress. Whilst the two other party leaders did attend, Theresa was nowhere to be seen. There are 675,000 nurses in the UK how many votes did she loose?
I have seen at first hand over the last 6 years how hard nurses work. During that time I’ve had 4 different operations as well as other treatment. Most of my nursing care was good. I saw nurses having to care for confused and elderly post-operative patients in a High Dependency Unit. The unit was understaffed, the nurses not adequately trained. There were not enough doctors on duty either.
Visiting a friend in a psychiatric hospital last year, the picture was the same. The ward was chaotic and noisy, with not enough staff. There were no extra staff to provide activities either. The reason? More bed closures including the specialist high care unit.
Yes, nurses can protest outside hospitals or Downing Street. But I cannot imagine any nurse leaving the ward to actually withdraw their labour. In itself that would be a breach of the NMC Code of Conduct. Nurses could refuse to do overtime. But the effect of that will be to reduce their pay even further.
All I know, is that when nurses are protesting – I will join them. Both as a patient and a nurse.