Clapping Won’t Pay the Bills

In 2019, there were 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone. The only way to protect the future of the NHS is to treat its workers properly – and that means a pay rise that will actually improve their lives.

Throughout this pandemic, NHS staff have worked around the clock to support a service that is breaking apart at the seams due to a chronic and persistent recruitment crisis and unprecedented levels of staff sickness.

In 2018, a government health committee report revealed that more nurses were leaving the professional register than joining. This trend is set to accelerate. Nurse vacancy rates in the NHS are high, standing at 13 percent in London in 2019. In 2019, there were 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone.

The influx of student nurses will do little to plug these gaps, particularly since one third of all students drop out of the course, and newly qualified nurses often leave within the first five years of service. A serious effort must therefore be made to retain staff in the NHS.

Because of this recruitment crisis, a reliance on expensive temporary agency staff has developed over the years. Nurses chose to work for agencies rather than take up permanent roles because the pay rates are better. But why should NHS staff have to choose precarious agency work in order to get pay they can live on? The use of agencies also is far more expensive for the public purse than the costs associated with paying permanent NHS staff properly.

Despite NHS staff going above and beyond the call of duty to save lives during the pandemic, they were forgotten in the last public sector pay announcement. Astonishingly, the government looks set to give NHS staff only a 1 percent pay rise next year.

Searching questions must be asked as to why this government has taken a decision to delay awarding the significant pay rise that NHS staff need and deserve. One of the factors is that this government is preparing for a massive ramping up of their privatisation strategy: demoralising will be part of painting the NHS as not fit for purpose, in order to turn our most precious asset over to private companies who will run it in the interests of their own personal profit.

NHS staff have consistently delivered for the country during this pandemic while the private companies who have received billions in public cash have failed us. Serco were eagerly bankrolled by this government to set up the failing test-and-trace system – but there is no money in the pot for hardworking NHS staff to have a timely pay rise. Bills are rising in April, but the stark reality facing NHS staff is that their pay will remain stagnant. This will cause many more to slip below the breadline and leave the NHS for better-paid work.

NHS staff are being mentally and physically broken by the disgraceful and neglectful way they have been treated by those who understand nothing about the gruelling conditions they have endured over the past year. Matt Hancock has made much of the fact that the NHS is rolling out a health and wellbeing programme, which is to be welcomed, but NHS staff are sick and tired of being treated with contempt by government and by managers who persistently fail to reflect their outstanding contribution to society in their pay, terms, and conditions of service.

Any mental wellbeing programme that attempts to gloss over the real material difficulties faced by NHS staff, or that transfers the responsibility for the deep systemic NHS crisis onto individuals, is likely to cause further waves of anger.

On 30 March, GMB union will be having an NHS activists online event to prepare for the battles that lie ahead. As a union committed to organising in the NHS, we have won many local NHS victories, including recently securing free parking for all staff at Epsom and St Helier NHS. GMB union was the first health union in the country to support the demand for a 15 percent pay rise for all NHS staff and new layers of committed trade union activists have joined our ranks as a result.

With support from across the labour movement, NHS trade unionists will push to enhance pay, terms, and conditions for NHS staff in the full knowledge that there can be no NHS for any of us without their vital work.