Opinion

Fair pay. It’s a matter of life and death

"The nurses who deal with death every single day in increasingly difficult conditions deserve more. And they deserve it now"

Nurse holding old woman's hand

Last week, I went to a hospital to say a final goodbye to a dying relative. It was sad and as dignified as a quiet death can be. At one point a nurse came in. Spotting the tired and anxious wife of the dying man the nurse immediately asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. It was a very simple act. In that moment, I knew that nurses couldn’t be paid enough.

Not, obviously, for just asking about tea. But it turns out that this nurse had been on shift 12 hours before. She knew that death was coming, and she carried that with her until the return to work. Who knows how many other deaths she has lived through, how many fearful cries in the night she has attended, and how many confused and upset relatives she has comforted.

In that one moment, I knew that nurses couldn’t be paid enough

All this came on the day the Westminster government announced it was lifting the 1 per cent pay cap imposed on some public sector workers. Kind of. Even within this boost for police and prison officers there was some financial jiggery-pokery.

The immediate and obvious question came that if some workers were worth the paltry boost, why not others? The starting salary for a UK nurse is £22,128. The UK average is a little over £26,000. In Scotland, the SNP government lifted the cap on pay increases in June. You could argue that they bowed to political pressure, but then so did the Conservatives in Westminster.

The one-size-DOESN’T-fit-all approach from London led to radio phone-ins which quickly led to an unseemly rush to condemn those employed by the State as some kind of lazy chancers on the make – and look at their pensions! The repeated mantra from on high came that it was important to look after the interests of UK taxpayers. This implies that those doing vital public sector jobs aren’t paying taxes, a sneaky bit of double-speak.

To all those who rang in to radio shows to explain why they felt nurses – and indeed firefighters and teachers – aren’t worth more I say, shame on you.

To those who moan that their own pension isn’t so good, I say – and what? Find a way to better your pension pot then. Don’t condemn others because in one aspect of their life they have something that is better than you, not through rapacious greed or by preying on others, just as a small perk of an essential job.

And to those who ask, well how will we pay for it, I say how about raising some taxes or looking again at distribution of income from the country’s coffers? In turn, how about looking to the government to help increase growth in the economy so more is raised for the public purse.

It is said that we don’t know how much we need the NHS until we have to use it

It is said that we don’t know how much we need the NHS until we have to use it. And then, boy do we sing its praises. This is a mawkish call born of a private moment. That moment crystallised the obvious.

There are unquestionably issues around the way money is spent, around procurement of medicines and services. And we, as a public, could do a huge amount to prevent ourselves developing life-limiting, costly conditions.

But there is no cure for dying. And the men and women who deal with that reality every single moment of every day in increasingly difficult conditions deserve more. And they deserve it now.

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