Nurses across Britain have taken to the streets to demand the Government remove a public sector pay freeze, warning that low pay is fuelling staff shortages and risking patient safety.
The 1 per cent pay cap, introduced in 2010, has seen nurses’ salaries rise below inflation – a real-terms cut of 14 per cent, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Protests were held in 30 locations around the country, from Edinburgh to Milton Keynes, while nurses and healthcare assistants gathered in Norwich last night for a candlelit vigil to express their concerns over pay and working conditions.
Outside the Department of Health in London, dozens of nurses and campaigners called on Jeremy Hunt to lift the pay freeze, chanting “scrap the cap” and holding banners and balloons emblazoned with messages to the Health Secretary.
After the general election Mr Hunt hinted he might lift the pay cap, currently in place until 2020. He praised the “absolutely brilliant” work of nurses and said he had “a great deal of sympathy” for the case they have made over pay.
At the London protest, Lauren Gray, a 22-year-old nurse who qualified in September last year, told The Independent “nursing is on the brink of a disaster if the Government don’t listen to us”.
“I feel like there’s no incentive to go into nursing any more,” she said. “I’m worried about the future of the profession and how bad it’s going to get. The staffing levels are so terrible that they’re unsafe.”
Ms Gray described working on a ward as “manic” and said she had decided to change her job to work on an intensive care unit, where there is lower risk of being left to care for an unsafe number of patients.
“When I became a nurse I didn’t think I’d ever be rich, but I did think I’d be able to go home and feel like I’d looked after people properly, but I don’t. I’m working so hard for so little, and I can’t even do my job properly. And it feels like no one is listening to us.”
She added: “There have been times when I’ve left work and I’ve had a 20 minute break all day and I’ve done a 14-hour shift. I’m physically exhausted a lot of the time when I’m home. Do you want someone who’s physically exhausted caring for you? It’s not right.”
Former nurse Assok Bukhory told The Independent he had decided to take early retirement as he didn’t want to go back”.
“We need to let the Government know that nurses need protection, need a good salary. Without nurses, the NHS will fall. In all the hospitals, the nurses have to shout out and ask for what they deserve,” he said.
The RCN’s national day of action is the beginning of a summer of lobbying, which the union has warned is a “final warning” to take action over low pay or face nurses striking for the first time ever.
The organisation’s chief executive Janet Davis said a perfect storm of collapsing foreign arrivals in the profession due to Brexit, plummeting domestic applications, chronic low pay and high stress was pushing people out.
Recent figures revealed the number of European nurses registering to work in the UK has fallen by 96 per cent since the EU referendum last June.
Health minister Lord O'Shaughnessy today argued this was due to new language tests, rather than Brexit.
Ms Davies said the long warned-of crisis in nursing, exacerbated by the Government’s approach, has now become so acute that the NHS is in grave danger of suffering another catastrophe on the scale of Mid Staffs.
The RCN reports that there should be 340,000 nurses in the system to make sure patients are safe according to official standards, but one in nine posts – some 40,000 – are unfilled. In some areas of the country it is one in three.
Linda, a critical care nurse who did not wish to give her surname, said the cost of living and working in London was difficult as she is the main wage earner for herself and her husband.
“I wake up most mornings and worry about what my life is going to be like in 10 years time,” she told The Independent.
“Although my pay is holding steady, the fact is we haven’t got a lot left for anything else. I pay to get to work, I work more hours than I’m supposed to for no extra money, I come home and I worry about going out and enjoying myself.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “As the Secretary of State has made clear, the support and welfare of NHS staff is a top priority as they do a fantastic job – the Government is committed to ensuring they can continue to deliver world-class patient care.”
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