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'Ultimately, this strike is about patient safety': Three NHS nurses on our healthcare crisis

The NHS turns 75 this year but will it survive another 75? Three nurses take the vitals of the health service to find staff numbers in freefall and a system on life support

Coloured balloons with NHS written on them

Image: The Big Issue

The situation in the NHS is critical. While we should be celebrating the 75th anniversary of one of our greatest achievements, staff are striking, calling for pay increases, and measures to reduce waiting times and fill the enormous number of vacancies – 133,400 in NHS England alone.

The Big Issue brought together three leading nurses to consult on the current ailments plaguing the NHS and work out potential remedies.

May Parsons is a nurse in Coventry who delivered the first Covid vaccine in 2020; Rohit Sagoo has a background as a children’s nurse and now teaches others looking to specialise in that area – he is also founder and director of British Sikh Nurses; Elizabeth Varughese is a mental health nurse in Portsmouth, one of many NHS employees who has come from abroad to work in our National Health Service. 

They start by discussing why they contributed to a new book, Dear Nurse, aimed at children and celebrating the 75th anniversary of the NHS this year.

Elizabeth Varughese: We need new people joining us. We need a generation that would love to be a nurse. There’s nothing else that I would ever want to do my whole life. And if I could inspire at least one kid when they read the article, I’ve done my bit. 

Rohit Sagoo: From my perspective, being a British-born Asian male, there was a stereotypical image that Asian males go into medicine, accountancy or being a lawyer, etc. I think it’s about breaking glass ceilings in terms of saying nursing isn’t gender biased, you can identify however you want to. We’ve seen a lot of international nurses come along and it’d be nice to see some domestic homegrown talent. 

May Parsons: I agree with Elizabeth about inspiring future nurses. Clearly we have got gaps in the workforce, but I also agree with Rohit. We can’t just saturate our workforce with international staff – we’re taking somebody else’s nurses.  

RS: From my experience as a lecturer, you see the recruitment side of nursing in terms of why people want to come in. The first and foremost question when we interview potential nursing students is: Why do you want to be a nurse? There are several factors. A lot of the students that come in to do children’s nursing have been children’s patients. They may have had leukaemia, gone into remission and they’ve now decided ‘I want to be a children’s nurse.’ Quite a percentage. Then there’s people wanting a diverse role change. They’ve been in another industry, now they want to give back. There’s always a sense of giving back. There’s that sense of being a kind and caring person. 

MP: Like Elizabeth said, this has been a passion of mine since I’ve started it and it hasn’t waned. It isn’t something that I would leave easily. It would feel like pulling my soul out. But our charity is being taken for granted and obviously abused for quite a long time. To the nurses thinking about leaving because they’re losing faith they’ve been so burnt out, I want to reaffirm why we are in nursing in the first place. Our journeys are all unique but we get into it because of the innate desire to help our communities. We find the joy and the purpose in it. We haven’t realised the strength that we have as a community if we stand together. 

May Parsons is a nurse in Coventry who delivered the first Covid vaccine in 2020. Image: May Parsons
May Parsons is a nurse in Coventry who delivered the first Covid vaccine in 2020. Image: May Parsons

RS: We’ve been quiet for 106 years. We’ve never spoken about how we feel, we’ve never challenged the government and said this is what we deserve. There are colleagues of ours who are suffering. There are colleagues who are accessing foodbanks, there’s low pay that’s been ignored for so long. I know there’s the word vocation. I want to strip the word vocation. We’re a degree profession – we’re experts and that needs to be recognised. We’re the most trusted profession in the world. If the public trust us, give us our dues. 

EV: There are things as nurses we do that are not in a job description. I’ve not seen a single nurse whose shift is over rush out the door if there is an emergency. In 15 years of being a nurse I’ve never seen anyone say: “That’s not my job.” 

MP: We’re already respected but the respect is clearly not enough. Ultimately, this strike is about patient safety. Patient safety is integral to everything that we do. It comes first above everything else. Not having enough staff, getting outside agency nurses to fill the gaps. That poses in itself a risk to patient safety and the quality of care we’re delivering. I started my nursing in 1996 and it’s just getting worse. I mean, you couldn’t say to people, “Oh, don’t leave the NHS.” You couldn’t. Why would you convince someone to stay to be paid 50 per cent less than if they get paid on an agency rate?

Rohit Sagoo has a background as a children’s nurse and now teaches others looking to specialise in that area – he is also founder and director of British Sikh Nurses. Image: Rohit Sagoo
Rohit Sagoo has a background as a children’s nurse and now teaches others looking to specialise in that area – he is also founder and director of British Sikh Nurses. Image: Rohit Sagoo

RS: If we’re spending £6 billion a year on agency staff, that can be translated into wages going up across the board. I’ve seen quite a few of my friends leaving their jobs to sign up to agency to get that additional money and flexibility in terms of their hours. That’s awful. 

MP: For me, it’s really important for nurses to have that sense of being valued. We can recruit and recruit, we can get people into nursing but how are we going to retain them if we don’t look after them? 

RS: Years ago people used to ask, “Why did you go into nursing?” “Well, it’s not for the money.” That’s what we used to say. But I think with a cost-of-living crisis, with inflation rates, the money needs to be reflected as well. The best way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NHS would be to celebrate everyone that works within it. Many people talk about nurses and doctors – we’re forgetting the allied professionals, the domestics, the cleaners, those who bring the food. If we’re celebrating the NHS, we celebrate everyone and we celebrate the diversity in the NHS as well. At least 40 per cent of NHS workers are from a diverse background. And it’s about time we celebrated them and how much contribution they make to the NHS. 

Elizabeth Varughese is a mental health nurse in Portsmouth, one of many NHS employees who has come from abroad to work in our National Health Service. Image: Elizabeth Varughese
Elizabeth Varughese is a mental health nurse in Portsmouth, one of many NHS employees who has come from abroad to work in our National Health Service. Image: Elizabeth Varughese

EV: I completely agree. When you visit a hospital you start with the front desk, there’s a radiographer who takes your X-ray, an amazing porter who takes you around the place. A nurse comes down after all of this then you see a doctor. So even before meeting the doctor, there are five to six people who are involved. And that’s what makes NHS special. 

MP: Yeah. The best thing about the NHS is the people that make it up. 

RS: To capture it, the NHS is probably the largest family in the UK. That’s exactly what we are. I had never met May, I’ve never met Elizabeth but we can share our experiences and we can come together. 

Dear Nurse book cover

Dear Nurse: True Stories of Strength, Kindness and Skill (A love letter to nurses and midwives everywhere) is out February 2 (Scholastic, £14.99), with 50p from each sale going to the Royal College of Nursing Foundation. 

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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