Khobhi K. A. Williams

Nurses across Britain go on their biggest strike in history

Photo by Ola Mahmud

This is the rundown of what has led to the monumental nationwide nurses strikes and what students need to know about NHS industrial action

Last week, thousands of nurses from 73 English NHS Trusts went on strike over failed pay disputes between the government and nursing trade unions. This accompanies a series of industrial action across most public sectors, like postal workers, teachers, and train staff, over the last couple months. However, these February strike seem to be grandest national striking for over four decades. One group receiving much attention are nurses, it is highly uncommon to see nursing unions take industrial action like this, however since December, the Royal College of Nursing made their final decision and have joined other public sectors. Because of this choice, nurses have received backlash from the media and some members of the public for being selfish in their demand for a pay rise and putting the lives of patients in danger. However, these criticisms are not a firm assessment of the situation nurses experience in this country. In this report, I will explain what events have led to the biggest strikes in nursing history and how this matters for the future of the NHS.

The pay dispute

The strike originates from the Royal College of Nursing refusing the annual pay rise (for England) set by the government at £1,400 in July 2022. This figure may sound good to the naked eye; however, this only represents a 4% increase in nurses wages. Now this affects nurses differently because there are different bands of nurses who are paid wages that range from £27,055 to £101,000. However, what is clear is that the 4% pay rise falls under inflation for most nurses and it represents a long trend of nurses pay not measuring up to increasing costs. In fact, over the last decade nurses wage increases have significantly fallen behind inflation.  A poll taken of 30,000 RCN members on the offer revealed that most of them overwhelmingly rejected the increase and since July, the RCN and other nursing unions have tried negotiating with the government with little progress. Last week strikes escalated the dispute, producing the highest number of NHS Trusts joining the protest, with 73 English Trusts getting involved. Notwithstanding the clear opposition to the pay increase, the stance of industrial action is strange for nursing because their unions are known for avoiding any form of it, so why has this stance changed so dramatically?

There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly, the current cost-of-living crisis is wearing the NHS thin. The RCN believes the pay rise is inadequate and places NHS staff members into unsafe conditions during the economic crisis. There have been reports of nurses needing to work overtime and using food banks because their standard pay can’t cover all their overheads. Additionally, the Nuffield Trust Thinktank found that a record 40,000 nurses have also left the profession in the last year, outweighing the number of new nurses ten times over. not only does this leave hospital wards deserted from eligible staff, the mass exodus of nurses also threatens the NHS’s growth as less and less young people feel confident entering the service.

The second explanation correlates to the first, as these strikes are also a cry from the healthcare sector to save the NHS from collapse. With the failure of nurse retention over the last year, it continues to strain the NHS to unsustainable levels. The pay rise represents a decade long trend of nurses’ salaries not meeting the threshold of inflation, pushing more young nurses to leave each year. Compared to some other European countries like Germany and Ireland, Entry-level Band 5 equivalent nurses are paid better than British nurses by 13.5% (Germany) and 6% (Ireland). However, these wage comparisons should be taken with a pinch of salt because there are multiple factors that determine salaries like the employment structure, department variations and the economic system of a country. Regardless, British nurses are seeking alternatives in the United States, Canada, and Australia, where average nursing salaries are better. As more people leave the service, it becomes increasingly unsustainable; waiting times go up, less nurses are on hand to help patients and ultimately the quality of care suffers. This all puts the NHS’s future into question because if its current model cannot be protected, radical shifts may become a reality that destroy the NHS we know today.

The future of the NHS

Healthcare professionals in the UK are struggling to stay afloat during this cost-of-living crisis and as more nurses are pushed to leave, the nurses that are still here are not only pleading for better salaries, but also for a better NHS for everyone. For over 70 years the NHS has been at the heart of Britain’s infrastructure and preserving it, is what nurses are striving to achieve. Yet throughout its history, the NHS has adapted and evolved to meet new societal needs. It has a strong tradition for innovation and improvement. Now it is nurses who are challenging the deep-rooted problems of the NHS head on. It may be uncertain what the future holds for British healthcare, however, if nurses continue to strike against the government’s decision, something will have to give.






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