A slap for carers: Why the proposed 1% pay rise for NHS nurses is an insult

The clanging of pots and pans, whistles and whooping, which filled the streets as we all left our houses at 8pm on a Thursday evening during the first lockdown to ‘clap for carers’, appears now like the perverse soundtrack to a low-rent horror movie in which the UK edges towards a cliff-edge. A cliff-edge our government very much saw coming and did nothing about, rather umming and erring over whether to pursue ‘herd immunity’ in which the most vulnerable would be sacrificed.

Nearly a year on, 120,000+ deaths and three lockdowns later, the nurses who we clapped for so earnestly are set to be given, in return for their service on the ‘front line’ fighting coronavirus, a pay rise of 1%, recommended to an independent review body by the government. 

It is ‘as much as we can give’ Boris Johnson said of the measly offering, pointing to how there has been a wider public sector pay freeze which will affect 1.3 million workers including teachers, care workers, and firefighters. 

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Union has called this proposal ‘pitiful’, arguing instead that nurses should be given a 12.5% pay rise. The RCN is also threatening industrial action and has voted to set up a £35m strike fund (should nurses decide to walk-out against a pay rise which would give them a mere £3.50 extra a week in take-home). Contrast this with lockdown 1.0 and former No.10 advisor Dominic Cummings who was given a 40% pay rise, perhaps to pay for an eye test. 

Richest sitting MP, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who snuck through a £30bn cut to the NHS in his budget last week, said that the pay rise was based on ‘affordability’, a phrase reminiscent of the George Osborne austerity rhetoric during the 2010s. Although the current Conservative government is keen to distance itself from their budget-slashing predecessors, the legacy of a decade of austerity continues to live on, nonetheless. Because of this decade long assault on the public sector, nurse starters today are approximately 10% worse off than a decade ago. This is why a pay rise of at least 10% is needed to bring nurses wages back to their 2010 levels. 

Predictably the government has come under fire for the proposed 1% pay rise and there are growing rumours of a U-turn. A poll conducted at the weekend suggested that 72% of the population thought that the rise was too low, with 58% of Conservative voters even thinking it too little. 

The Labour Party has called the proposal a ‘disgrace’ and has defiantly called for a rise of an almighty…2.1%. The Thick Of It-esk scenes of frantic focus groupings springs to mind, with the golden egg number of 2.1% being agreed upon by the Starmer camp thinking it to be the perfect balance between supporting the government and remaining somewhat loyal to their historic base.

However, if the government does U-turn, they will likely offer more than the Labour Party is proposing – not that difficult after all, with rumours swirling around a 3% increase. The Labour Party would therefore have missed the mother of all own-goals, being out-progressed again, by a government who suggested the policy in the first place. Starmer’s refusal to confront the Conservatives, who have presided over a national collective nightmare, in an ideological way means that his incessant middle-ground stance isn’t working. The Conservatives continue to control the narrative with the Labour Party following behind, dragging their feet on electorally viable issues that the majority of the population actively support. Arguably, Keir Starmer’s biggest policy thus far is simply not being Jeremy Corbyn. But he has taken this to entail all aspects of Corbynism – including a 5% pay increase for nurses included in the 2019 manifesto – which remains popular in the wider public. 

A report by ITV has found that over one-third of nurses have skipped meals in order to feed their family or save money. The deeply gender-segregated nursing profession means that these real-terms pay cut will affect women the most, and their care sector sisters will receive nothing from a government who has bent over backwards rhetorically to call them ‘key workers’ but in reality treated has them as ‘free workers’ not worthy of a pay increase. Labour must get off the fence now and fight for those it claims to represent. 

Olivia McGhie

Image source: Flickr