Opinion: After the year we’ve had, can we not value our nurses enough to pay them better?

If the pandemic doesn’t inspire a meaningful shift in how we pay our healthcare workers, what will, asks Abi Jackson.

Abi Jackson
Thursday 17 June 2021 10:50 BST
Nurses protesting outside Downing Street last May (Aaron Chown/PA)
Nurses protesting outside Downing Street last May (Aaron Chown/PA)

It’s not news that NHS nurses are underpaid. Now, a new report is highlighting how poor wages mean many nurses struggle with housing costs – and saving to buy a home is impossible – with some leaving the profession as a result.

House prices have increased six times faster than nursing salaries over the last decade, analysis for The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) report found. The average cost of a UK home has increased by 55%, while the pay of an experienced nurse in England has only risen 9% over the past 10 years.

Factor in how other living costs will have risen during this time too, and it’s little wonder nurses are questioning whether they can afford to carry on in their jobs.

What’s it going to take for the government to value nurses enough to pay them decently? The past year has seen our healthcare workers face their most challenging (and for many, most traumatic) chapter in recent history.

And the reality of their efforts wasn’t merely an abstract notion seen in a report, or heard from the cosy distance of parliament; Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself became one of those statistics, needing life-saving treatment for Covid.

Yet there’s been no movement on giving nurses any more than a 1% pay rise. Apparently, we ‘can’t afford’ to go higher. But what the government can and can’t afford must surely come down to how much they value each pot they’re filling, and how they allocate funds accordingly.

As many nurses have pointed out, a 1% pay rise isn’t really a pay rise at all, when you consider living costs have already been disproportionately rising.

Remember balking, sighing, maybe even ranting when that 1% pay rise was first suggested? Around the same time we were taking to our steps to clap for our healthcare workers, heroes of the hour, for 10 weeks?

They’re not just heroes of the hour, though. They’re heroes full-stop; day in, day out, pre-pandemic and (hopefully) long after it.

Anyone who’s spent time in hospitals – whether as a patient, or an anxious parent, carer or relative with a sick loved one – will know how utterly important nurses are. Surgeons and consultants, of course, do incredible stuff, but it’s the nurses who’ll really take care of you. Who’ll make sure you’re kept comfortable, and feeling reassured and safe.

When we experience this first-hand – which we all have or likely will at some point – the gratitude you feel is the sort that can move you to the core and stick with you for life. So, why do we still not value them enough to pay them decently? Do they not deserve to live comfortably and be able to save for a home deposit?

As Dr Gavan Conlon, one of the authors of the RCN report, said: “It is hard to imagine a profession that contributes so much to the health and wellbeing of the nation being valued so poorly…”

The NHS Pay Review Body is due to make a recommendation on pay soon, and the RCN is calling for an immediate 12.5% rise for all UK nursing staff.

It’s time to cough up where it really matters and give our nurses a decent pay rise.

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