After months of leadership failure at all levels have led to the deaths of more than 400 health workers, protests organised by NHS nurses and health workers are demanding justice across the country today.
These workers, many of whom have lost 20% of their pay over the last decade, have made enormous sacrifices to save lives at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. In these last few months, countless workers were forced to live separately from their families to protect them from the disease. It was a common experience that nurses were supporting their patients as they died from the virus while knowing they weren’t adequately protected from it themselves.
The scandalous delays in getting PPE into hospitals was the direct result of a system torn apart and fragmented by years of privatisation. After the language of heroism deployed by the government and the weeks of clapping for our NHS heroes, many nurses and health workers hoped the government would play fair and reward their hardship during the height of the pandemic.
But those hopes have now been dashed. The Conservatives have further heightened tensions by excluding many NHS workers, including nurses, from its latest announcement on public sector pay. This will only mean that NHS workers, who have already been at the sharp end of cuts and privatization, now stand to be pushed even further into financial trouble and despair.
It has long been the case that increasing numbers of health workers feel pulled away from caring for patients. Staffing levels have been deeply compromised by cutbacks, and overstretched nurses are being put in impossible situations where they would have to break professional registration obligations to do their job properly. The level of demoralization is such that many nurses have left the NHS, creating a serious recruitment crisis where 40,000 job vacancies are unfilled.
And it must be said that the poor pay, poor terms and poor conditions will be an even more attractive option for the private sector, and will allow the government to move the NHS away from its core function of providing free, comprehensive care for everyone. Perhaps this is the aim: while the government killed off any hope of a pay rise for those who worked hard to save lives, they were very open about allowing America to push vulture health insurance companies into the heart of our NHS.
However, we have now moved into a situation where those who remain have truly had enough and are willing to stand and fight. They are sick and tired of having their goodwill abused by those who have no understanding of what it means to work on the frontlines. NHS staff are being politicised by the pandemic on a mass scale, and a march called at very short notice in central London last week attracted more than a thousand workers.
At the march, it was clear that many nurses who would never have made a fuss of themselves – and would have never dreamed of going to a protest – were there in defiance of the government, speaking freely of their disgust at the failure to translate words into action. They were clear that the government is squarely to blame for the disastrous response to the pandemic, and that its policies o pay are slowly pushing them into poverty.
This action has led to the demonstrations across Britain today. My union, the GMB, is proudly supporting those protests, and we are closely aligned with the demand for a significant pay rise for all NHS workers. The days where unions completely give up on real, substantive, grassroots union organising must be brought to an end in the NHS, and we have to listen to the workers’ calls.
For too long, NHS workers who show real potential as active trade unionists have encountered too many barriers to becoming engaged reps. We need to build a political culture to lead, support and protect trade unionists, to embolden them and enable them to get over the hurdles, to build their confidence and to show them what can be done through real action.
As a movement, we must throw our full industrial might behind the unions fronting the fight for NHS pay justice. This means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with frontline NHS workers who are showing us that they’re ready and willing to get organised around pay.
For the first time in years, there is an opportunity to build real bargaining power in the NHS – and use this in the interests of our members. The NHS is nothing without its staff and if we are to keep our NHS public there is no better time to stand squarely with our members. It needs to be made clear as day that the government can’t get away with treating our NHS workers like this.