As of January this year, over 850 health and social care workers have died on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19. This is one of the highest death tolls in Europe; a tragedy that could have easily been avoided, had there not been such an incompetent government response to the pandemic.
The NHS is in a deep crisis. The provision of basic PPE has been mired in scandals and cronyism. Waiting lists are now millions-long. And there are approximately 76,000 staff vacancies across England.
Nurses are often required to go above and beyond. The COVID death rate amongst nursing staff has been higher than the general population. Patients are coming in with more severe mental and physical health problems, brought about by social issues. Beds for mental health patients are down by 25% since 2010. All of this has left staff exhausted, overstretched, and underpaid.
I work in South London, where boroughs such as Southwark have had their budget for youth services slashed by 82% in recent years. Coupled with the funding crisis facing the NHS, and the appalling conditions and pay for workers, this is creating fertile ground for privatisation, social unrest, and strikes, as health and care systems collapse.
"It's really tricky because, first of all, there are still many, many staff vacancies, about 76,000 across England."@LaylaMcCay on @itvmeridian discussing @NHSEngland performance statistics, including waiting lists, which topped 5 million nationally. pic.twitter.com/ORjVjwv3Rj— NHS Confederation (@NHSConfed) June 11, 2021
Change is desperately needed. Given the struggle that healthcare workers have faced throughout the pandemic, and given the enormous support we have from the public, it is clear that NHS staff deserve a fair deal when it comes to pay and conditions.
But the Tories and capitalists aren’t interested in rewarding NHS workers for their heroic efforts. All they care about is privatisation and profit.
The government’s paltry offer of a 3% pay rise therefore comes as no surprise.
Not only is the 3% offer an insult, but it is also tantamount to a wage cut, given that inflation – according to the Treasury – is set to rise to 3.7%. And beyond the recent bout of inflation, nurses’ pay has fallen sharply since 2010, due to several pay freezes between 2008 and 2018.
Florence Eshalomi, Labour MP for Vauxhall, was right to state that this sends the wrong signal to NHS staff, at the time when the government should be desperately seeking to recruit nurses and other healthcare workers. But to call it a betrayal is false: we cannot be betrayed by those who have never been concerned with our interests.
The Tories are trying to spin this 3% as historic; as a gift from the government. We’re told to be grateful for this ‘generous’ offer – led to believe that the cupboard is bare, and that there isn’t any more for the NHS than these crumbs.
Yet throughout the pandemic, Boris Johnson and his ministers have been happily lining the pockets of their chums: from the Compass Group, owned by a Tory donor, handing out substandard meals to children; to the £2.1 billion of PPE contracts going to firms with links to the Tories; or the infamous debacle that is the £37 billion test and trace system.
That £37 billion – siphoned off to various private profiteers, such as Serco – could have paid for all NHS staff to receive the 15% pay rise they deserve; and there would still be money left over for other workers, alongside desperately-needed additional funding for the health and social care budget.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has correctly denounced the current offer from the government and its supposedly ‘independent’ pay review bodies. Instead, the RCN is demanding a 12.5% pay rise. Other healthcare campaigners and unions are arguing for 15%.
In recent years, the RCN’s position has clearly been influenced by the pandemic, and by the anger amongst nurses on the frontline. The union’s rhetoric has become less conciliatory – a welcome change from not so long ago, when Dame Donna Kinnair, the former general secretary of the RCN, could be seen posing on top of the Department of Health with Matt Hancock.
Nevertheless, when it comes to taking action, the RCN leaders still lag behind. The union is currently organising a ‘summer of action’ to drum up public support for a better deal for nurses, with demos and rallies planned. But the RCN leadership continues to tacitly disapprove of strikes as a tactic, stressing that such a move is a ‘last resort’ every time the idea is mentioned.
The union also requires three separate ballots before calling industrial action. And after the initial consultative and indicative ballots, the RCN would attempt to engage in further negotiations – by ‘entering into a formal dispute with employers’ – before moving to the vital third ballot.
A pay consultation will begin on 12 August, running through until 13 September. But this drawn-out process risks losing all the momentum from the movement. With this, the RCN leaders would continue to incorrectly claim – as they so often do – that members are apathetic about taking action.
These hoops that members must jump through in order to strike only benefit the Tories. The lack of fighting leadership sows confusion amongst rank-and-file RCN members.
What’s more, it isn’t necessary to expend further time and energy ‘winning the argument’. YouGov polling shows that 51% of the public think the 3% deal is too little; and 62% say there are too few NHS nurses.
You only need to look back to the junior doctors’ dispute in 2015-16 to see the enormous support that striking healthcare workers would have amongst the public – and that was before the pandemic thrust essential workers into the spotlight.
Key workers across the public sector – from education to local government – have been hit hard in terms of wages and conditions. Despite working tirelessly to keep children safe, or to maintain vital community services during the pandemic, these workers are now facing a pay freeze.
With important unions such as Unison – which represents large numbers of NHS workers – moving to the left, and with huge sympathy and support amongst the public, nurses could be leading the way, helping to link up all the struggles against this criminal Tory government.
By taking militant, coordinated action across the public sector, nurses and other striking workers could provide the spark needed to topple the Tories. But only if we have leaders who are willing and determined to fight.