The cost-of-living crisis has had a huge impact on all of us and most sectors of society have been hit. We’ve seen strikes by Royal Mail, ScotRail, and soon we’ll see a record-breaking strike of NHS paramedics, junior doctors, and nurses. We’re often told that the NHS is at breaking point, but this time it really might be. A lack of government funding is a prescription for NHS walkouts and a crumbling health service.
Rising fuel prices, volatile housing markets, and the cost of bread increasing by 18%; the hits to the economy, and the British people, have been relentless. Many of us don’t get the chance to pull ourselves up off the floor or regain our balance before the next blows come and this has been devastating. 1 in 5 Brits are struggling to put food on the table and both depression and inflation rates are rising at unprecedented levels. These are challenging times for all of us, but it doesn’t mean we need to stay silent. And many of us aren’t.
Huge proportions of the country are frustrated with the lack of support and action from the government, and we’ve seen this anger and disappointment channeled through strikes. These strikes have shown how important public workers are. ScotRail services were cut by 90% which created chaos for Scots, and Royal Mail strikes of 115,000 workers (and poor planning on my part) meant that deliveries of letters and birthday presents were delayed by days, or sometimes weeks.
For years, staff within the NHS have demanded improvements to working conditions, and pay, claiming that they are significantly overworked and undervalued. The Royal College of Nursing has repeatedly called on the government to act, stating that currently, NHS services are “not safe”, and ministers are refusing to listen and implement change. During the height of the pandemic, NHS workers were given priority access to supermarkets, windows were plastered with rainbow posters, and every Thursday our streets were filled with those clapping for carers or musicians playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. But claps, praise, and colourful drawings don’t pay the bills, and ministers need to appreciate that.
After increasing pressure, the British government responded by giving a 3% pay rise to NHS staff in 2021 and claims it will provide another 3% rise this year to help staff members cope with the cost-of-living crisis. All NHS workers in Scotland were offered a £2,205 pay rise in October 2021, averaging out at about a 7% increase in wages. But for many, this isn’t good enough and has just added insult to injury. In some cases, these ‘pay-rises’ would actually mean long-term pay cuts for staff members, with Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nurses claiming that a 4% pay rise would leave “an experienced nurse more than £1,400 a year worse off.”
Inflation rates have soared to 9% so far and are on course to reach 11% by the end of the year. The government’s proposed rise of 72 pence per hour for nurses and other NHS staff simply isn’t enough according to experts, or most of the general public, who 73% of in a recent poll, supported increasing pay rates of NHS staff in line with inflation rates. The Royal College of Nursing has asked for a 17.6% pay boost for all NHS staff except for doctors and dentists, which if agreed, would cost an extra £9 billion to the British government.
While this is a staggering amount, it is important to ask the question of what is the real cost of not acting. 27% of NHS trusts in England have opened food banks for staff, nurses have been eating leftover food from their patients’ trays because they don’t eat at home so that they can feed their children, and there are multiple reports of staff phoning in sick before payday because they can’t afford to pay for fuel to travel to work. When we think of our heroes, of who got us through the pandemic, most of us would argue it was the tireless fight of our key workers, not our politicians. How can ministers turn their backs on those who saved lives, and gave their own lives, to navigate us through one of the most challenging times modern Britain has seen?
The cries of NHS staff have been ignored for far too long and measly pay rises that end up being long-term pay cuts have just rubbed salt in an already raw wound. The six major unions of NHS staff have all described a willingness to communicate with ministers, and are still willing to have conversations, but will now lead some of the biggest-scale industrial action seen in the country of the century. Ambulance workers in Scotland who are members of the GMB Union will be the first group of the NHS to strike, starting a 26-hour strike on the 28th of November. Over 350,000 members of staff in England and Wales have also voted to take part in industrial action over the coming months if wages don’t increase to reflect the cost-of-living crisis and it is estimated that up to 3 million operations in England alone could be postponed due to the impact of strikes on hospitals and patients.
The NHS, and those who work in it, care about patient safety and wouldn’t put patient safety at risk unless absolutely necessary. The government has a duty for the protection of lives, of the NHS, and of the country, to ensure that it doesn’t cost people an arm and a leg to survive.