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UK pays nurses less than France, Ireland, US and more

The Queen's speech failed to mention a recovery plan for social care, including the long-called for pay increase for nurses
Around 300,000 nurses did unpaid overtime during the pandemic. Image: Pexels

Plans outlined in this week’s Queen’s speech showed a “missed opportunity” to reform UK social care, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

And after a year which highlighted the lifesaving work of the country’s nurses – were it not already clear – the government still shows no signs of budging over the measly 1.5 per cent pay rise it has pledged for them, which amounts to a pay cut in real terms.

“The Government has again missed the opportunity to finally address social care,” said RCN acting chief executive, Pat Cullen, after the Queen’s speech failed to set out recovery plans for the sector. “Ignoring social care is the same as ignoring the NHS – the pandemic shows their fates are intertwined.

“Together, they make up a system that is desperately in need of investment – with workforce shortages the top concern.”

Prior to the pandemic, the UK – the fifth largest economy in the world – ranks 11th for average nurse pay out of 18 countries, Big Issue analysis of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures spanning 2016 to 2019 show, after figures were converted from US dollars to pounds sterling.

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And when salaries are compared to each country’s average annual income, the UK ranks 24th out of 32 countries.

Belgium, the US, Norway and Ireland all pay their nurses more than the UK does.

The average salary for a nurse in the UK is £33,305, according to analysis of the OECD data, starting at around £25,000 for new nurses.

The figures don’t take overtime into account but even before the pandemic, more than 43 per cent of NHS workers said they were doing up to five hours’ unpaid overtime each week. At least 300,000 did unpaid extra hours during the pandemic, up 13,000 on the year before.

Luxembourg pays its healthcare staff the most, with nurses receiving an average £76,908 per year. Iceland follows, paying nurses £61,295, nearly double the amount UK nurses are paid.

The UK ranks 11th using recent data on nurses salaries.
nurses table
The UK ranks 11th using recent data on nurse salaries. Credit: The Big Issue

“The clapping was powerful and lifted the spirits of many,” said Dame Donna Kinnair, former RCN chief executive who has temporarily stepped down due to illness, as the organisation called for a 12.5 per cent pay rise for all nursing staff. “But the government must grasp the nettle this year and value the work of nursing staff.

A 12.5 per cent pay increase would bring the average UK nurse salary to around £37,470, still less than the twelve countries currently outranking it.

“The job is tough and complex and yet we are worse off now than years ago,” Kinnair added. “If you clapped us, then now is the time to show you still back us.”

Nurses are struggling to get by on their wages – particularly in areas with high living costs – with 57 per cent of those surveyed telling the RCN that they were considering leaving or planning to leave London by 2025, up 17 per cent from 2016.