When Tiana Pritchard qualified as a neonatal nurse three years ago, she was delighted to be offered her “dream job” at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. But renting a small flat in the capital with her partner left her struggling on so little at the end of each month after bills, food and transport, she had no choice but to hand in her notice.
“My partner was worse off than me and I ended up having to pay more for us to be able to survive. It started to affect our relationship, so we decided to leave London,” says the 23-year-old.
Pritchard now works in Southampton, where living costs are more reasonable, but staff shortages mean she never leaves the ward on time and often works 14-hour overtime shifts, keeping sick babies alive. Seeing Theresa May brush off suggestions that low pay is forcing 6,500 NHS nurses to turn to food banks on live television was “a joke,” she tells The Independent.
“I watched that interview and she honestly had no idea what she was talking about. The only reason why nurses are going to food banks is because the pay is not high enough and they cannot support their families.”
Jeremy Hunt has said nurses’ pay is “above the national average” as nurses around the country vote on whether to take steps towards the first nursing strike in history – because “for almost entirely all nurses, this is the worst it’s been”, according to Janet Davies, head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
The threat of industrial action was announced by the RCN just five days before May appeared outside Downing Street to call a surprise election, placing the issue in the middle of what many assumed would be a clear road to a greater Conservative majority and the Brussels negotiating table.
“The snap election is supposedly to ensure Theresa May has the mandate for the Brexit negotiations, but we can’t avoid domestic issues that actually mean more to a lot of people, and the NHS is in serious trouble. There’s a real consensus now that it needs more money, otherwise it won’t survive,” says Davies.
“We’ve had some potential suicides; people ringing us and requiring urgent counselling. We do have those every now and again, but there has been an increase.”
The RCN says there has been a 14 per cent real-terms cut on nurses’ pay since 2010. Nursing manager Andy Bassett-Scott tells The Independent he had to cover the shifts of an employee who could not afford to travel to work in Doncaster as she lived far from the town and her car had broken down.
The Department of Health has said keeping pay rises below inflation helps protect jobs, but Davies warns there is a growing number of nursing vacancies as “people are so fed up they just leave”, with bosses hiring expensive agency staff to fill gaps.
Nursing is not the only vital NHS service facing enormous pressure. Paediatricians have warned of staff shortages so severe that a third of specialist children’s wards have been forced to close, while almost half of GPs have said they are planning to leave the profession amid a crisis of low morale. Chaotic scenes took place at hospitals around the country this winter as more people waited over four hours to be seen at A&E than ever before.
Labour has promised increased pay for NHS staff after years of freezes, a stop to Conservative plans for hospital closures and new laws to ensure safe levels of staffing in wards. The Liberal Democrats have said they will help fund the health service through a one per cent rise in income tax.
But following dramatic swings to the Conservatives in local elections, questions are being raised about what another five years of budget-squeezing could spell for the future of the NHS.
“The Prime Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that there is not extra cash for the NHS. There has been the implication in her rhetoric that the NHS should see itself like other public services such as policing, which have had far larger cuts to their budgets,” says Sally Gainsbury, senior policy analyst at health think tank the Nuffield Trust.
“We would argue healthcare is not like policing. As we progress and develop as a civilised society, we tend to want to cure people of illnesses we may have lived with 50 years ago, and that desire will continue.”
Costs are also being pushed up by an ageing population, and more people living with chronic illnesses for longer, with shortfalls in social care causing more hospital visits. NHS England says the health service will face a funding gap of £22bn by 2021. The latest figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies show annual increases in the health service budget since 2009 have been less than a third of the average yearly funding rises for the NHS over the last 60 years.
“Maybe Theresa May will stick to her current warning there’s nothing extra up until 2020-21, but if there was some clarity about what people can expect, that would be useful, because that then allows organisations to make investments,” says Gainsbury.
Others have been more scathing in their predictions of what five more years of Conservative rule would mean for the NHS. Former GP and health policy commentator Phil Hammond has said ministers are “very relaxed” about the health service in the run-up to the election as they believe there is no effective opposition, according to GP Online.
Everyone the Government blames for the NHS crisis – except themselves
Everyone the Government blames for the NHS crisis – except themselves
1/6 The elderly
“We acknowledge that there are pressures on the health service, there are always extra pressures on the NHS in the winter, but we have the added pressures of the ageing population and the growing complex needs of the population,” Theresa May has said. Waits of over 12 hours in A&E among elderly people have more than doubled in two years, according to figures from NHS Digital.
2/6 Patients going to A&E instead of seeing their GPs
Jeremy Hunt has called for a “honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments”, saying that around a third of A&E patients were in hospital unnecessarily. Mr Hunt told Radio 4’s Today programme the NHS now had more doctors, nurses and funding than ever, but explained what he called “very serious problems at some hospitals” by suggesting pressures were increasing in part because people are going to A&Es when they should not. He urged patients to visit their GP for non-emergency illnesses, outlined plans to release time for family doctors to support urgent care work, and said the NHS will soon be able to deliver seven-day access to a GP from 8am to 8pm. But doctors struggling amid a GP recruitment crisis said Mr Hunt’s plans were unrealistic and demanded the Government commit to investing in all areas of the overstretched health service.
3/6 Simon Stevens, head of NHS England
Reports that “key members” of Ms May’s team used internal meetings to accuse Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, of being unenthusiastic and unresponsive have been rejected by Downing Street. Mr Stevens had allegedly rejected claims made by Ms May that the NHS had been given more funding than required.
4/6 Previous health policy, not funding
In an interview with Sky News’s Sophy Ridge, Ms May acknowledged the NHS faced pressures but said it was a problem that had been “ducked by government over the years”. She refuted the claim that hospitals were tackling a “humanitarian crisis” and said health funding was at record levels. “We asked the NHS a while back to set out what it needed over the next five years in terms of its plan for the future and the funding that it would need,” said the Prime Minister. “They did that, we gave them that funding, in fact we gave them more funding than they required… Funding is now at record levels for the NHS, more money has been going in.” But doctors accused Ms May of being “in denial” about how the lack of additional funding provided for health and social care were behind a spiralling crisis in NHS hospitals.
5/6 Target to treat all A&E patients within four hours
Mr Hunt was accused of watering down the flagship target to treat all A&E patients within four hours. The Health Secretary told MPs the promise – introduced by Tony Blair’s government in 2000 – should only be for “those who actually need it”. Amid jeers in the Commons, Mr Hunt said only four other countries pledged to treat all patients within a similar timeframe and all had “less stringent” rules. But Ms May has now said the Government will stand by the four-hour target for A&E, which says 95 per cent of patients must be dealt with within that time frame.
6/6 No one
Mr Hunt was accused of “hiding” from the public eye following news of the Red Cross’s comments and didn’t make an official statement for two days. He was also filmed refusing to answer questions from journalists who pursued him down the street yesterday to ask whether he planned to scrap the four-hour A&E waiting time target. Sky News reporter Beth Rigby pressed the Health Secretary on his position on the matter, saying “the public will want to know, Mr Hunt”. “Sorry Beth, I’ve answered questions about this already,” replied Mr Hunt. “But you didn’t answer questions on this. You said it was over-interpreted in the House of Commons and you didn’t want to water it down. Is that what you’re saying?” said Ms Rigby. “It’s very difficult, because how are we going to explain to the public what your intention is, when you change your position and then won’t answer the question, Mr Hunt”. But the Health Secretary maintained his silence until he reached his car and got in.
Alan Taman, of campaign groups Doctors for the NHS and Keep Our NHS Public, adds: “The NHS will become merely a logo for privatised services where a profit can be made and a shallow ghost of its former self where there is no profit if the Tories have their way.
"This election must be about public services – or what’s left of them – and how to bring them back; not about Brexit. As far as the fate of the NHS is concerned, Brexit is the great distraction, as well as putting off badly needed non-UK staff from coming here to help run the NHS”
On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Hunt said the Government recognises more money will be need to be put into the NHS and social care system, but emphasised the Brexit negotiations “overshadow everything” as “if we get a bad Brexit outcome, that would be a disaster for the NHS”.
Health issues hanging on Brexit range from a potentially devastating exodus of EU and non-EU staff to voters demanding to know exactly when the NHS will receive its extra £350m a week, as promised by the Leave campaign’s notorious red bus.
If there is a fall in the value of sterling after Brexit, the incentive to work in the UK will disappear for many European health workers in low-paid jobs, who have been sending cash home, says Gainsbury. “When the pound falls, the economic benefit of being in the UK disappears. The instability has reportedly already had an impact in some areas.”
May has said the NHS will not form part of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, despite dodging the issue in a speech made to Republicans in Philadelphia. But unions and campaigners have warned the continuation of cost-cutting plans drawn up in 44 regions, involving a number of A&E and ward closures which Labour have said they will scrap, could lead to back-door privatisation of services.
All eyes will be on hospitals facing closures in key election battlegrounds, such as Ealing. Ward closures at Ealing Hospital are the focus of local campaigns in an area where the Labour MP Rupa Huq won in 2015 with a margin of just 274.
The results of the nurses’ strike poll will be announced next weekend at the RCN’s national congress. Davies says it is “frustrating” for their demands to be met with repeated soundbites from politicians. “It feels like we’re being ignored when we understand it,” she says.
“Unfortunately the only time we see a real shift is when there’s a scandal. We don’t want, the very worst thing, would be that people die or are damaged because of poor care in our NHS. Sadly, that’s the only time we get investment."Reuse content