LETTER TO THE EDITOR: We have never truly valued our NHS staff

AMONG the plethora of bad news we’ve been given to start off the New Year with is the strike of the NHS nursing staff over pay and conditions, and as this is their first strike in a century a short history may be useful.

As a profession nurses have always been underpaid and undervalued; even at the inauguration of the NHS in1948 the nursing service was already struggling for proper recognition. Due to low pay and unsociable working conditions the NHS had to look abroad to fill its vacancies, and by 1955 there were 16 NHS recruitment offices in the colonies. During my time as a NHS employee in the ‘60s a third of the nursing staff in the hospital group in which I worked were of Caribbean origin, and by 1970 some 31 per cent of the NHS doctors and medical staff were Asian.

Fast forward to 1974 and the segregation from the NHS of the Social Care Services. From then provision of care for the elderly and long term incapacitated would be provided by privately run hotel and insurance groups etc with concerns for permanently full accommodation and maximum profits, not the provision of care facilities for medically fit but still infirm NHS patients, leading directly to the present (and personally seen) picture of a ward sister spending her entire week ringing round trying to find places for discharged but infirm patients filling desperately needed beds instead of performing her specified duties.

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Fast forward again to 1982 and Margaret Thatcher’s famous words “the NHS is safe with us,” spoken when her plans for the total destruction of the service had already been finalised, and only held back by a back bench backlash, also the forcing by the Thatcher government for all future NHS works to be put out to private tender.

From then the NHS has been gradually privatised and sold off to the highest and often foreign bidder along with all the other profitable services in Great Britain.

The NHS Procurement Services were fully privatised in 2006, leading directly to the disgraceful PPS scandal of 2020 in which orders for essential protective equipment were filled not by competent suppliers but by fast-tracked cronies of the Conservative party, a scandal that led directly to the deaths of over 680 NHS frontline staff and care workers during the first Covid-19 attack.

The Windrush debacle, the Get Brexit Done disaster (including the extra £350 million per week for the NHS promised by Boris Johnson but still awaited), and the new emigrant regulations have all had a disastrous effect on a health service always dependent on overseas staff, and have had a destructive effect upon a demoralised service resulting in the unbelievably deteriorating situation it is now in. And throughout this administrative disaster our NHS nurses have continued to serve with diligence and distinction until age, burnout or plain disillusion has caused their retirement.

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So where are we now? A NHS nurse’s starting salary is £28,000 per year (one 20th of the basic salary of Steve Barclay), out of which she or he must first pay £360 every year for registration fees and professional indemnity. They will usually in order to qualify have passed a four year course, once free at one of nine specialist colleges but under the Conservative regime a fee charged university course, so unless they have private funds they will start work saddled with a £40,000 debt to the university plus any additional debts for accommodation and living expenses.

Their expertise will need to be higher than in earlier times as today nurses are expected to carry out several minor medical or surgical procedures previously the duty of a junior doctor. They will be allowed two 30 minute (unpaid) breaks during their 13 hour shift, if they have time. An independent body has calculated that after adjustment for inflation nurses’ real wages have dropped by £1,583 per year since 2011, and that a mere ten per cent pay rise would pay for itself in increased tax income and reduced student loans. Another study has found for every extra patient a nurse is asked to care for beyond the 5:1 safe ratio increases the risk of harm by seven per cent. In some hospitals the ratio is 12:1.

Conservative health secretary Steve Barclay says NHS strikes are a “conscious choice to inflict harm on patients”. Wrong! A seven million long waiting list for admission is a conscious choice to harm patients. An 18 week delay for patients awaiting treatment is a conscious choice to harm patients. A four hour wait for an ambulance still waiting to discharge its previous casualty is a conscious choice to harm patients. A patient/nurse ratio nearly three times the safe level is a conscious choice to harm patients.

A real living pay rise to the nurses would instead be a right one. Why not try it now!

Charles David Foulstone, Rotherham Green Party