Employment

'We are understaffed, undervalued and underpaid': Nurses vote on first national strike over pay

More than 300,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing will receive ballot papers on Thursday to vote on the biggest strike in the union’s 106-year history

nurses strike

Nurses are set to walk out over pay following warnings some are struggling to make ends meet during the cost of living crisis. Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

Nurses will vote on whether to strike over pay for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) 106-year history on Thursday.

More than 300,000 members will receive ballot papers to vote on whether to walkout after union bosses rejected the government’s offer of a 5 per cent pay rise for most NHS staff.

The RCN has called for nurses to receive a rise of 5 per cent above inflation – amounting to a 15 per cent increase – after the health workers faced the impact of the pandemic and the growing public health crisis that has followed.

“We are understaffed, undervalued and underpaid. For years our profession has been pushed to the edge, and now patient safety is paying the price. We can’t stand by and watch our colleagues and patients suffer anymore,” said RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen.

“Though strike action is a last resort, it is a powerful tool for change. And we must demand that change. Enough is enough. I urge you to vote ‘yes’ in this ballot.”   

The government said the 5 per cent pay rise, which was announced in July following a recommendation from the NHS Pay Review Body, is worth an extra £1,400 per year for nurses.

But with inflation surging and now at 10 per cent, this is actually a real-terms pay cut, the RCN said. 

Cullen added that low pay is causing high staff turnover and leaving thousands of nursing jobs vacant with the situation potentially affecting how patients are cared for in the NHS.

“Patient care is at risk because of chronic staff shortages, but nursing staff can’t afford to join or stay in the profession,” added Pat. “There are tens of thousands of unfilled nursing jobs across the UK. Unless governments start to value and pay nursing staff properly, there will be a further exodus, adding more pressure to an overstretched system.”  

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson insisted NHS staff were given a 3 per cent pay rise last year while there was a public sector pay freeze.

“We value the hard work of NHS nurses and are working hard to support them,” the government spokesperson added.

“Industrial action is a matter for unions, and we urge them to carefully consider the potential impacts on patients.”

But with the cost of living increasing, two-thirds of nurses, carers and healthcare workers are having to choose between food and fuel this winter in the face of rising energy bills, according to a study from nursing agency Florence. 

One in five health workers have started using foodbanks since the cost of living crisis started to take hold earlier this year, according to the survey of 1,000 workers last month, while a further 30 per cent know colleagues who have needed support to stave off hunger.

The offer of a pay rise may be too late for some healthcare staff with over a quarter insisting they are already planning to leave the profession in search of better pay.

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Dr Charles Armitage, a former NHS doctor as well as chief executive and founder of Florence, said: “We’re heading into a tough winter and it’s vital we take greater care of our NHS workforce. The cost of living crisis is a pandemic level crisis and not only will our workforce personally suffer, but the healthcare service overall will face intolerable pressure, at a time when it’s already on the brink of collapse. 

“We need to see increased pay, greater efforts to bring more people into healthcare and enhanced training as a start. We need to look after our frontline healthcare workers, not drive them out.”

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