Emergency Demo: NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now! London 2018 Emergency Demo: NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now! London 2018. Source: Jim Aindow / Counterfire - Flickr

A nurse speaks to Counterfire about the state of the NHS and the historic strikes set for 15 and 20 December for a 5% pay rise above RPI

On the day the RCN ballot results were announced I was asked by a friend “How do you feel?”.

My answer was “This is the best day of my life”. Heavily emotionally weighted, and I meant every word of it. But what did I mean exactly?  Well, to put it bluntly, having come from Ireland to join the NHS in 1973, now at 66 is the first time I can honestly say that I feel  our value as nurses is being recognised in a meaningful way. Most important is that this recognition is coming from within, from ourselves, from our own profession. Though we don’t take public support for granted of course, we do feel secure in it, as it’s been widely demonstrated in the run up to this strike.

Our 90% vote for industrial action marks an end, once and for all, of nurses rolling over to the political gaslighting of  generations – that we’re ‘wrecking the economy’ and ‘holding the country to ransom’ (and now ‘playing into Putin’s hands’!) by asking for even meagre pay increases.

It marks the end of us rolling over to the illogical notion that ‘nurses are too important to strike, but not important enough to pay properly’. An end to heeding the emotional blackmail of ‘Patients will die’, which we implement strike derogations to avoid. Newsflash! People are dying already in the plundered and pillaged and understaffed NHS. We have told them this but all we’ve gotten is empty platitudes while the privatisation juggernaut rolls ever-on. Brass (more) in pocket for the Tories!

And it marks the end of us accepting the lie that ‘the money isn’t there’, while we watch Tories awarding themselves a 28% pay rise over the past ten years.

A long time coming

But Jeez, our action has been a long time coming, hasn’t it?

So, most can see what has led to us coming out at this moment in time. A constellation of different events: 12 years of austerity led to the stagnation of our pay levels which has now reached a new low when compounded by the cost of living crisis. The now familiar stories of nurses and healthcare staff using food banks because they cannot feed their children on the meagre pay they receive. This in and of itself is heart-breaking and shameful in a country which likes to bluster that we’re among the richest in the world.

But, let’s make this very clear, our action extends much farther than just seeking an appropriate pay rise: safe staffing is at the core of our demands. Unsafe staffing levels translates to unsafe care for our patients and your loved ones. We are sick and tired of being made to carry the can for an unsafe service. Personally, I retired early because I just could no longer justify standing over the poor standard of care which was being  forced on us by the running-down of our NHS.

Of course, the NHS had a nurse shortage from inception, being unable to recruit enough nurses from the largely Caribbean and Irish cohorts which signed up. This shortage then became normalised and translated into an accepted nurse/patient ratio of 1/6, and by now has dropped to anything from 1/6 – 1/14 and higher, depending on how short we are on any particular day. And we need to be honest and face the fact that nurses were exploited on three fronts, as women, as immigrant and on the basis of class. The status quo was enforced by managers who perpetrated an almost military, bullying culture.

Of course, we can’t forget the ‘B’ word (no, not that one!), I mean Brexit which caused our  staffing  to fall to even more critical levels. Our lovely European staff feeling the chill of the hostile climate being fomented against migrants, said ‘CIAO’,  ‘Au Revoir’,  ‘Hasta La Vista’ and good luck, ‘thanks  but no thanks’!

Off our knees – to the barricades

All this on a background of the whole population being deeply traumatised by our experiences under COVID. Unsurprisingly healthcare staff bore the brunt of that trauma. It isn’t just the horrors of witnessing so many untimely deaths from the disease itself, this, after-all is something we’re trained to deal with and to a certain extent have signed up for by going into healthcare. But there was something much more grievously injurious  than that, which was the moral treachery perpetrated on us by our negligent and callous government.

I think the litany is familiar to most by now. Failing to prepare for a pandemic as advised by Exercise Cygnus as early as 2016. The subsequent downgrading of infection control advice resulted in thousands and thousands of avoidable deaths in the population and among healthcare staff. Recent figures estimate 120,000 healthcare staff lost their lives while £billions were wasted on fraudulent crony contracts.

But perhaps even more shocking than this was the collusion of NHS hierarchy with Government misinformation regarding recommended PPE. Being told by managers that we weren’t allowed to use eye protection or FFP3 masks on COVID wards,  because, as I was told ‘It would  give the wrong message’, (that is, give other staff the idea that we should be using this level of protection, when management knew they couldn’t provide it). So, advice was tailored to cover up  government negligence in not providing proper PPE, not to protect either staff or the public. Staff were little more than cannon fodder going onto this frontline. A Frontline from which many never came back.

£60,000 was the going rate being given to families in life insurance by the NHS. Case closed, or so they thought. But we had eyes, and brains and consciences and above all hearts which have been broken by this treachery. This is our ENOUGH IS ENOUGH moment! The genie will not be going back in the bottle!

Nurses are off our knees and on our way to the barricades, to join the other brave unions in building a caring society with Justice for all as our benchmark!

Tories have hijacked our NHS or profit and we want it back!

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