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NHS Nurses “Angry” At Health Secretary’s Claim That Pay Rises Could Cut Patient Care

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen joins striking nurses on the picket line. (Alamy)

4 min read

Striking NHS nurses have expressed their frustration at health secretary Steve Barclay’s suggestion that pay rises are “unaffordable” and that repurposing existing budgets to facilitate them would take money away from vital patient care.

“It’s a very predictable argument that the health secretary has come up with today,” David Hendy, a chemotherapy nurse for the last ten years, told PoliticsHome at the University College Hospital in London.

“We’ve continually seen them pitting the narrative of nurses against patients. This is classic government manipulation, smoke and mirrors.

“We are here today striking for patients, we are here to defend the NHS. Without nurses, we don’t have an NHS system. We are here today for everyone.”

Nursing staff from more than 55 NHS trusts in England are taking part in industrial action on Wednesday and Thursday, the second round of nursing strikes since December. 

Hospitals across the country are currently seeing record ambulance waiting times, and wards are under pressure from rising Covid and flu cases. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union is demanding a 19 per cent pay rise for the profession, arguing that this is fair compensation in light of inflation and challenging working conditions. 

Nurse speaking in front of picket line wearing RCN hat
David Hendy is one of thousands of RCN members striking across England this week (Zoe Crowther)

Writing for The Independent as strikes got underway on Wednesday, the health secretary, Steve Barclay, has said he wants to have a “constructive dialogue” with union leaders, but is “disappointed that patients may face disruption due to the strikes". 

He claimed the pay rise proposed by nurses would be unaffordable, and that "with fewer than three months left of this financial year, it is time to look ahead, not back”, indicating that the government is more open to flexibility on pay for future years than retrospective pay nurses are demanding. 

“I recognise the cost of living pressures on NHS staff and I know how hard they work, but if we provide unaffordable pay rises to NHS staff, we will take billions of pounds away from where we need it most.

“Unaffordable pay hikes will mean cutting patient care and stoking the inflation that would make us all poorer.”

But Hendy dismissed Barclay's argument on pay, and said nurses can no longer guarantee patients’ safety due to an “exodus” of senior staff and an inability to recruit junior nurses due to low pay and poor working conditions. 

Eleanor Ferguson, a gynaecological oncology specialist nurse who has worked in the NHS for six years, told PoliticsHome that she believed nurses were trapped with only three options: “patients suffer, colleagues suffer, or you suffer yourself”.

“[Strike action] has been a long time in the making. We have been waiting for an avenue in which we can express how we feel about the state of play in nursing for decades, and we’ve not had that opportunity until now,” she said. 

Responding to Barclay’s comments that increasing nurses’ pay would lead to a cut in patient care, she said she found it hard to comment "without sounding angry". 

“There’s that usual rhetoric, that nurses are greedy. This is about the patients we look after, we are not able to give them the care they deserve,” Ferguson said.  

signs on picket line outside University College Hospital
Nurses say the strikes are about wider issues than just pay (Zoe Crowther)

She described how she has seen many colleagues leave the profession, and said those left working in the NHS are “doing the jobs of 2-3 colleagues”.

Around 30,000 procedures or outpatient appointments were postponed as a result of nurse strikes on 15 and 20 December.

However, the government has praised the RCN for its “responsible” handling of the December strikes by ensuring minimum service levels were provided for patients.

The government has so far not budged on offering pay increases to nurses, and the treasury does not plan to grant additional money to departments to fund public sector pay settlements in order to end the strikes. 

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of not taking responsibility for the crisis in the NHS.

Sunak responded: “We're rapidly implementing measures to improve the delivery of ambulance times and indeed urgent and emergency care.

"If [Starmer] cares about ensuring that patients get access to life saving emergency care when they need it, why won't he support our minimum safety legislation?”

An anti-strikes bill is currently being passed through parliament as the government's proposed way of limiting the impact of strike action and implementing minimum service levels across multiple "blue-light" sectors, which could include nurses, in order to limit the impact of strikes.

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