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NHS staff must ignore the guilt-tripping and fight for fair pay

Far from ‘taking it out on the patients’, exploited health workers are actually taking action for my wellbeing
The Guardian

As a result of a long-term illness (multiple myeloma), visits to Barts and the Royal London hospitals have been part of my regular routine for some years. I never cease to marvel at the range of responsibilities involved in keeping me alive and alleviating my aches and pains. Nurses, technicians, receptionists, porters, admin and clerical workers, cleaners, pharmacists, phlebotomists, pathologists, doctors, and others all in their different ways perform essential tasks. If any of them drops the ball, patients’ wellbeing can be compromised, sometimes fatally.

Sitting in the day unit at Barts with my IV drip and reading the newspapers, I can’t help but compare this weight of responsibility, and the diligence with which it is discharged in the vast majority of cases, to the wanton irresponsibility of bonus-primed bankers, asset-stripping corporate executives and our whole tax-avoiding elite. And I do wonder how it is that more people are not sickened by the perversity of our system of rewards.

Sometimes I can almost see this grey cloud of financial anxiety hovering over hospital staff, who struggle to meet the rising costs of living with wages that have declined in value by 10%-14% since 2010. Thanks to years of pay freezes, NHS workers face mounting debts, forcing some to resort to payday loans and even food banks. Meanwhile, they stretch themselves to make the best of diminished resources and increasing demands at work, only to find themselves scapegoated for failures or bullied by management, who press them to deliver endless “savings”. Fewer staff are working ever harder to treat more patients for less pay. You don’t have to read the Francis report into the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal to see where this is leading. Ultimately, it is patients like me who will pay the greatest price.

Now the government has twisted the knife by rejecting the independent pay review body’s recommendation of a 1% pay rise for all NHS workers. While the proposal has been accepted by the Scottish government, it seems that in England even this minimal, below-inflation award is considered too generous. Instead, the government proposes to confine the 1% increase to staff already at the top of their pay bands, which will exclude 58% of NHS workers – among them 70% of nurses and midwives.

This latest rebuff may well prove to be a provocation too far. In response, Unison and Unite are moving towards balloting their NHS members over a campaign of industrial action including strike action. The first step is on Thursday when unions hold a day of local protests to highlight the injustice of NHS pay.

There has, of course, been a mighty wail of outrage. The NHS employers’ group has already warned health workers not to “take their frustrations out on the patients”. As the ballot nears, we are sure to see NHS staff bombarded by such messages. They will be called “selfish” and “callous”, and told that their demands are excessive. As a patient dependent on NHS treatment for my continuing survival, I hope they will resist this guilt-tripping. For me, their fight for better pay is a fight for my wellbeing: not a luxury but a basic necessity.

What is happening to the NHS is, of course, only one example of the wider impact of austerity, but it’s one of the most egregious – not because NHS workers are a “special case” (many other groups of workers are struggling with declining real pay), but because underpaying NHS staff says so much about our collective priorities and values.

Governments have long exploited the goodwill of NHS staff, who are in fact extremely reluctant to “take it out on the patients” – health workers and their unions will make sure there is proper cover for emergencies and continuing care for those confined to hospitals during any industrial action. But I hope more of them will now see that passively accepting their fate is doing patients no favours. The real danger for us is what will happen if the attack on the NHS and its workforce continues unabated.