Why nurses need to strike

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‘The voice of nurses is the voice of the vulnerable, the voice of patients and the voice of social justice.’ Alison Leary, Nursing Professor

Gay Lee
RCN member
Member of Lambeth
Keep Our NHS Public

A shortage of labour is at the heart of the total car crash which is the current state of the NHS. This is not the fault of nurses, who are the biggest sector of the NHS workforce. There are many other problems in the NHS (euphemistically and annoyingly called ‘challenges’), but: solve the nursing crisis and things will begin to look up.

Nurses hope they will not have to strike. However unless the threat of the successful Royal College of Nursing (RCN) ballot (176 hospital trusts exceeded the threshold for a ‘yes’ vote) bears fruit swiftly, industrial action will take place.

Unless the Government is sufficiently worried that it calls the RCN (and other unions) to the negotiating table and the strike is called off, nurses, fellow campaigners and other supporters will need to confront media and some (but only some) public hostility. They will need to be calm, empathetic and give good reasons why striking is necessary.  Here are some of them:

Pay justice

Nurses need better pay. Many can’t actually survive without it. No need to reiterate the foodbank and eat or heat tragedies here. Health Care Assistants and Band 5 nurses form the bulk of the workforce and they are the worst paid.

We need to train more nurses…

… but just as importantly retain them. Inexperienced nurses rely on experienced  colleagues – the very ones who are leaving or taking (often early) retirement. Working conditions are so bad that the workforce is haemorrhaging staff and nurses can receive their NHS pensions at 60 and a few at 55.

Still no plan for the NHS workforce

The Government had a chance to do something about pay. They could have agreed to a legally binding and funded workforce strategy when passing the Health and Care Act earlier this year. They refused this opportunity but it’s the only long-term solution. However one quick action to help retain nurses and immediately alleviate this nursing crisis is to increase pay. And the only way to do this appears to be to strike because the government is not listening to anything else.

Safe care for patients

Nurses have a duty to keep patients safe and they want and try to, but are unable because of lack of funding and poor staffing levels. Daily we hear stories in the media of patients dying because of lack of beds, scanners, ambulances… and staff.

It could be argued that it’s nurses’ duty to strike for more pay because if they don’t, more staff will leave and patients will become even less safe. Industrial action is a last resort – enabling truth to speak to power.

Emergency care continues

The bottom line is that strike action, if it becomes necessary, is perfectly legitimate and will not endanger lives. It will be well organised by strike committees which will work with managers, to keep emergency services going by exempting their staff from the strikes (‘derogation’).

Ironically staffing might actually improve as dangerous shortages are usually hidden from the public eye. Emergency services will be scrutinised thoroughly during a strike and managers will want to present the situation in the best possible light.

NHS and NMC need to speak out
If NHS chiefs and Trust heads of nursing and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (nurses’ registration body) loudly and publicly put pressure on the Government, maybe nurses wouldn’t need to strike. The NMC especially has a legal duty to keep patients safe. So why don’t they speak up about patient safety in the current crisis?

 Attracting the best heads of global companies means paying them well for their scarcity value. So why not nurses? To make bosses work harder and smarter we pay them more but to make nurses work harder and smarter we pay them less.

Political choices
There is enough money. How it’s spent is a political choice.  Increased pay should not have to be found out of existing budgets as is threatened now. We bailed out the bankers in 2008 and currently there’s enough money to ‘reorganise’  the NHS, this time into evidence-lite Integrated Care Systems (FYI they won’t work without enough staff).

We pay for weapons for Ukraine – unpredicted but widely approved expenditure.

We wasted billions on unsuitable and over-priced PPE in the pandemic.

We waste billions now on very expensive replacement agency staff and on recruitment.

More pay for NHS staff would mean more money going into the economy in increased taxes and spending, so overall the pay bill would not be eye-watering. See research done by the RCN.

Strikes will cause inconvenience and some disruption but will get publicity and hopefully the threat will embarrass the government into doing the right and safe thing. There is good evidence that public support is currently growing. People understand and love and trust nurses.

And we mustn’t forget that other NHS workers and the social care workforce also needs a pay rise  – which would also help the NHS.

A last thought: Nursing Professor Alison Leary says: ‘The voice of nurses is the voice of the vulnerable, the voice of patients and the voice of social justice.’

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  1. We need to support our NHS and Nursing Staff!! Without Nurses – no NHS!!! Please look into how far behind the wages of Nursing Staff has fallen compared to the rest of Professional Bodies!!!

  2. nurses are regulated to be scrutinised and struck off, whilst managers have the right to declare nurses anxious and undermine all aspects of safety critical work practices… remove nurses from all aspects of evaluation of the care provided and “career planning”…. and no one acts upon nurse concerns…nurses are not supported, but blamed…WHY DOES NO ONE DO ANYTHING? THERE IS NO RECORD OF THIS! No evidence base about nurse concerns that leads people to leave the profession!!!


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