To the millions of healthcare workers in the UK, the pay squeeze isn’t a debating point on Newsnight or a politically positioned challenge on Question Time.
It’s something that forces them to financially struggle and make sacrifices, and Westminster would do well to remember that when it makes its decisions about the NHS pay bill.
During a motion at last week’s Unison health conference on whether to take industrial action over pay, one healthcare worker from Exeter, on £20,000 a year and a single parent, described how his daughter came home from school and rang him to tell him there was no food in the fridge. He told delegates she was right, there wasn’t. He then broke down as he told the audience how she’d found the number for Wonga on his phone when she was playing with the internet, and she asked: “Daddy, is that a bad company?”
His story is not unique. The conference was full of workers talking about their struggles to pay bills or buy food, and how they were working second jobs or taking out pay-day loans.
Workers are saying enough is enough - they seem intent on taking industrial action - be that demonstrations, non-cooperation or even strikes
The Exeter worker went on to declare from the rostrum: “I can’t afford to strike, but I can’t afford not to strike either.”
The government just might have misjudged its decision to cut these workers’ pay. Because the mood of the conference was clear. While not everyone was in favour of holding a ballot for industrial action, the appetite for making a protest was stronger than in previous years. Workers are saying enough is enough - and the majority seems intent on taking industrial action - be that demonstrations, non-cooperation or even strikes.
There was also an appetite to change staffing levels, fuelled by Unison’s Running on Empty report covered in last week’s Nursing Times. A meeting of the recently formed Four-to-One group also taking place in Brighton, attracted a crowd of people who were motivated to insist on not just safer but safe staffing levels. This group is determined to emulate the action taken by nurses in Australia and California to get mandatory minimum staffing levels set at one nurse for four patients. It is mobilising nurses to come together and present patient safety issues to their managers - ending the fear and isolation that has kept many from speaking out.
Again and again at last week’s conference, there were cries of “we are stronger together”, and that’s something the government hasn’t factored into its number crunching. The power of healthcare staff lies in their numbers. The government should have done its sums around pay with that in mind. I think it may be time to get their calculators out again and shift their priorities.
Jenni Middleton, editor
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @nursingtimesed