It’s no secret that NHS workers are underpaid and overworked. Not many of us would agree to work 12 hour night shifts, unpaid overtime in a hugely stressful environment and earn between £21,000 and £27,000 to do so. Reports of budget cuts and chronic understaffing only serve to highlight the importance of appreciating our NHS staff, who took strike action on Monday to protest for a 1% pay rise for nurses, ambulance drivers, midwives and hospital support staff. While picket lines were small, there has been a widely positive response from the public, who recognise that paying our most vital service workers below the living wage is simply unfair.
NHS strikes tend to elicit a more emotional response from the public than most sectors, as strike opponents perpetuate the idea of people going untreated or even dying for lack of staff. However, in this 4-hour strike, every effort was made to prevent any harm coming to patients. Military personnel were drafted in as ambulance drivers, and hospitals tried to avoid any non-emergency surgery.
For many, the strike was symbolic. Nurses and midwives were seen leaving the picket line to attend to understaffed wards. Nor was the decision to strike taken lightly. This is the first NHS strike over pay in 30 years and the first strike ever for the Royal College of Midwives. To put this in context, London Underground drivers have staged ten strikes in the last five years.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has defended the decision to reject the pay rise, claiming that if the already underfunded NHS was forced to pay an extra 1% in pay to all of its staff on top of the 3% incremental pay rise for professional progress, the result would be 4000 nurses losing their jobs this year, and 10,000 more over the next few years.
But at a time when a 10% pay rise for MPs has been approved (raising their salary to £74,000), many are unconvinced by Hunt’s logic. The lack of an above-inflation pay rise combined with the rising cost of living has meant that hospital staff, along with many other public sectors, have taken a real terms pay cut of up to 15%. On the London picket lines, strikers told journalists that many of them could no longer afford to live near their hospital, and had been forced to move out to Luton or the South-East. In the West Midlands, a senior midwife told the Guardian that she knew colleagues who had been forced to go to food banks to get by.
Our NHS staff are there for us, around the clock, when we need them most. They delivered us as babies, look after us when we’re ill and save our lives when we have accidents. We should be supporting them in the face of their disgraceful treatment and assisting them in their campaign for fairer pay.