I’ve been an NHS nurse for 15 years. Here’s why I’m going on strike

NHS sign
NHS nurses have voted to go on strike for the first time in their history

Original article republished from OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

OPINION: As nurses announce strikes in December, the Tories must start paying them fairly to save the NHS from collapse

Holly Turner

25 November 2022, 12.00am

The first-ever national strikes of NHS nurses will take place on 15 and 20 December, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has announced.

The RCN, whose members made history by voting for direct action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has accused the government of “choosing strike action” by refusing to negotiate on pay.

Other health unions, meanwhile, continue to ballot their members across both England and Wales, while strike mandates have been achieved across Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Direct action will now take place in all corners of the NHS, including ambulance services. These ballot results are evidence that there has been a dramatic shift in mood among health workers over the last year.

In 2021, I wrote for openDemocracy about a general feeling of despair among colleagues. By contrast, everyone now appears angry and focused, a feeling that I think has been encouraged by the recent wave of strike and trade union activity across other industries.

We hear reports of the NHS in crisis, hospitals running at capacity and dangerously low staffing levels. But without working within these services, it’s impossible to truly understand what this looks like for staff, and the patients these staff are doing their best to care for.

What staff are witnessing first hand is a catastrophic breakdown of services that has left us with vacancies hitting 135,000 and patients in danger. We desperately need to focus on retention of staff: without addressing that, we have no chance of tackling the backlog of seven million patients. Sadly, neither the government or opposition ever bring retention into the conversation, because that would mean putting pay restoration on the agenda.

In a recent survey by the GMB union, one in three ambulance staff said they had been involved in a delay that had resulted in a person dying. This is a terrifying statistic, and just one of many that the government should be taking far more seriously.

Staff are not prepared to stand with their hands behind their backs while the NHS is ripped apart in front of our eyes

What we are now witnessing are increasingly extreme attacks from the right-wing press and commentators attempting to demonise us, and to guilt us into abandoning our fight for what we are owed.

However, as I commented to a colleague, nothing they can say about us will be as bad as what staff are witnessing day in, day out. Things cannot continue as they are, and staff are not prepared to stand with their hands behind their backs while the NHS is ripped apart in front of our eyes.

I have worked as an NHS nurse for 15 years. I love my job. But my pay, and that of my colleagues, has been deliberately eroded for over a decade, with some workers up to 29% worse off in real terms. What we are left with is a group of workers carrying the entire burden of keeping patients safe, while the government washes its hands of any responsibility or accountability for the state of the service within which they work.

These are the staff who find themselves skipping breaks, working overtime for free, selling back their annual leave to make ends meet, sleeping in their cars as they cannot afford fuel to and from work – and ultimately quitting, as the moral injury of delivering substandard care is not sustainable.

We should all be united in our outrage. While this is an industrial dispute about pay, the fight is about so much more. During the pandemic we witnessed the devastating impact of dramatically increased demand on an NHS that has been stripped to the bone. We cannot let this happen again.

This is why we are taking our fight to this government and standing up not only for ourselves, but for our families and communities, and for the future of the NHS. So when the time comes, and it will, please join NHS staff on the picket lines.

Without action now, there will be no NHS left to fight for.

Original article republished from OpenDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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NHS in crisis :: Unpatriotic militants? No, Jeremy Hunt – doctors are just fighting to be able to care for us all.

Clare Gerada on the strike by junior doctors.

 

Image of George Osborne asking where is the money to be made in the NHS

Unpatriotic militants? No, Jeremy Hunt – doctors are just fighting to be able to care for us all.

Being a doctor – or any public sector worker – shouldn’t be such a battle. That’s why we must support junior doctors in their planned strikes.

For the last 9 years I have been the medical director of an NHS service providing confidential help to doctors and dentists with mental health problems, seeing a rising number of doctors week on week.

But our patients have changed.

In our early days the ‘typical’ patient was an older male (GP or psychiatrist) with alcohol problems.

Now nearly half of all new patients are under 30 years old. They come to us with depression, anxiety and symptoms akin to posttraumatic stress disorder. Many have worked in the NHS only a few years. They started out bushy tailed and bright eyed, but end up ‘burnt-out’ (a polite euphemism for depression) after only a few years working. Our youngest patients are only a few months qualified and many are in their Foundation years.

Patient after patient talks of feeling betrayed and bewildered by their loss of enthusiasm about a profession that they had strived to enter (often since their early teens). How their desire to care for patients is sapped by every working day. The language they use to describe their work is that of the battlefield. Being on the ‘front-line’, of ‘surviving’ another shift, being ‘at war’ with management. They talk of feeling abandoned by the NHS. Of working intolerable shifts that appear to have been designed by robots with no concept that humans will need to work them. Of having no sustenance – literally and metaphorically – as they try their best to deliver care to patients.

They talk of working in an unforgiving environment – where every error will lead to punishment and where every move is watched and recorded. They describe the fun having gone out of their profession. They say that they cannot see a future any more in medicine.

Hardly surprising therefore that the numbers progressing through training (from the early Foundation Years to the start of specialty training) is reducing. That now nearly half of doctors are not progressing. And that this is against a background of fewer of our brightest entering medicine in the first place.

Our junior doctors are striking for more than pay and conditions – important though these are. Their planned strike is consciously or unconsciously action to shine a light on what is going on within the NHS – to shine a light on the conflict between idealism and industrialization.

Increasing privatisation has changed the relationship doctors have with their patients. Constant reorganisation has fragmented services, and shattered long-standing teams. At a series of NHS listening events I held in 2014, the overwhelming term used by all NHS staff to describe their working environment was ‘Fear’.

The pay of junior doctors has never been good – not when calculated across the hours worked, the responsibilities they have and when compared to their non-medical peers.

But this was part of the compact we all had – we gave our all for our patients and the organisation we worked in gave their all to us – cared for us, nurtured us, trained us.  We also knew that the intolerable hours would end as we climbed the medical career ladder. Now all of this has been fractured.

Instilling ‘fear’ in doctors, teachers, nurses and other public sector workers is deliberate government policy – as explicitly set out by Cameron’s policy guru, Oliver Letwin, in 2011.

The new junior doctor contract will erode not just pay but also the current safety net against exploitative hours of work. Saturdays will be counted the same as week-days (tell their children that when they are off school and wanting to see Mum or Dad). Women and others who take career breaks will be discriminated against. Junior doctors have been forced to look into the abyss and chose between pain today (strike action) or pain tomorrow (agreeing to an unfair and unsafe contract). They are being treated as children rather than the committed adults they are – their please ignored, instead accused by Jeremy Hunt of being ‘extreme’, ‘militants’, and even unpatriotic.

The junior doctors are not alone in their discontent. The nurses who are marching this Saturday, the teachers and social workers, in fact most public sector workers have seen insecurity, exploitation, fear, and subtle discrimination as the backdrop to their working lives.

The junior doctors are fighting for fairness for all of these workers.  They are leading the charge for a restoration of the values that should drive our public services. For a change by those who employ them – ultimately our Government – who have a moral duty to protect those who care for some of the most vulnerable in society.

Without this change, goodwill will disappear forever and with it the glue that binds our public services together. The government must now stop their bullying tactics and accept that something is profoundly wrong the NHS today and act before it is too late.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

 

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NHS in crisis :: Not fair, not safe – 6 reasons junior doctors are preparing to strike

Not fair, not safe – 6 reasons junior doctors are preparing to strike
by Nick Carpenter

Image of George Osborne asking where is the money to be made in the NHS

The junior doctor contract governs the pay and conditions of work from doctors’ foundation year to registrar level. All doctors who are not consultants or fully qualified GPs are considered ‘junior’ doctors. This contract was scheduled for renegotiation, but the British Medical Association (BMA) – the largest representative body of doctors – walked away because the offer on the table was not fair to doctors and not safe for patients.

The government’s initial response was brazen, and threatened to impose the new terms without consultation – a position it has had to water down since the BMA decided to ballot its members for strike action. Here’s why the BMA has done so the first time in 40 years:

  1. An NHS in crisis: overworked and undervalued.

Britain’s doctors have had enough. In a stretched and underfunded health system which doesn’t train enough doctors and nurses to meet its own needs – or invest in the infrastructure needed for new hospitals and facilities unless aprivate contractor is taking a nice slice of the pie – the solution seems to have been ‘work harder and take up the slack’. According to the Royal College of Physicians, the NHS “remains reliant on doctors working longer than their contracted hours…the amount of ‘goodwill work’ is increasing year-on-year.”

Trusts struggling to pay their tithes to the private owners of NHS hospital buildings have responded by reducing staff salaries, meaning fewer doctors and nurses are covering more patients and expected to do so for free. The situation has reached crisis point and doctors are experiencing enormous burnout, with more doctors applying to live abroad every year. Into this context came the new contract.

  1. It’s not about the money.

The ‘offer’ of the new contract has been condemned first and foremost as fundamentally unsafe. Just as with the recent tube strike, the new contract threatens to force doctors to work longer and later with fewer safeguards.

The BMA approached negotiations acknowledging financial limitations but determined to improve safety: it wanted no doctor to work more than 72 hours in a week; no more than four nights in a week on-call; a rest day either side of nights before starting back on day shifts; and facilities to sleep-in for those who otherwise make a dangerous long drive home.

The government was unwilling to accept these terms, and furthermore wanted to reduce breaks to just one 30 minute break in a ten hour on-call shift. As a recent viral video asked, could you save a life if you’d been up all night?

  1. But it is, also, about the money.

The new contract would mean a 15-40% pay-cut depending on your specialism, with GPs and emergency care doctors being some of the hardest hit. Let that sink in.

With wages starting beneath the national median anddecreasing yearly like all public sector pay, and out of pocket expenditure for licensing, exams and indemnities, junior doctors earn significantly less than the tabloids would have you believe. Their reports often use a cunning sleight of hand: taking the figures for the pay of those doctors doing the most private work – GPs who run a private practice and some consultants who run private clinics – and presenting the data as proof of ‘greedy’ public sector workers.

There are two ways doctors’ starting wages increase: extra pay for unsociable hours, and pay advancement as you progress through the ranks of seniority and responsibility. Both of these are under threat in the new contract.

The government has suggested that working from 7am until 10pm Monday to Saturday are sociable hours – and therefore should not be paid extra – which is funny considering MPs just reduced their own working hours and increased their own pay. As for pay progression with seniority, no actual offer was made.

  1. The changes hit women hardest.

The contract changes penalise those who take time out to start a family and those who work part-time –overwhelmingly affecting women in both cases. Additionally there are concerns that changes to breaks will make work more dangerous for pregnant women. As noted above GPs will be amongst those taking the largest wage cut, one of the few specialisms with more women than men.

  1. No confidence in Jeremy Hunt.

More than 200k people signed the petition to debate a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt. He wrongly and infamously implied that doctors don’t work at night or weekends. After blaming the A&E crisis last winter on people attending inappropriately (rather than, say, the reduction of roughly 13k hospital beds over the last five years), Mr Hunt felt it was appropriate to take his own children to A&E rather than wait for an appointment like, you know, the rest of us commoners.

But most of all:

  1. This was an imposition, not a negotiation.

Hunt and the government have shown a complete disdain for even the barest semblance of actual negotiation. When the BMA walked away from negotiations a year ago, it wasn’t as a strategy to get better terms, it was because the negotiations were a farce. It has taken the threat of industrial action for a pathetic attempt at reconciliation to come from the Department of Health, full of vague, unconvincing rhetoric. It is too little, too late. No fruitful discussions can continue with Hunt as health secretary. We have no reason to believe in his word or his competence.

We deserve more. Doctors do not take strike action lightly. Whilst we will always maintain emergency and essential services, the BMA will be balloting its members to strike against the contract in the next month. We hope to see you on the picket lines.

 

  • About the author: Nick is a junior doctor. He tweets at @ZastaNick.This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

 

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