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Nurse finds herself at centre of election smear campaign

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A nurse who questioned Scotland’s first minister during a TV election debate over poor pay and the use of foodbanks has seemingly found herself at the centre of a smear campaign.

Claire Austin, an accident and emergency staff nurse working for NHS Lothian, has faced a storm of criticism on social media, as well as being the subject of a critical story in the tabloid press.

“You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS”

Claire Austin

A parliamentary candidate from the Scottish National Party has also apologised to Ms Austin for alleging that she was married to a Conservative Party councillor in the wake of the panel debate.

Ms Austin was a member of the audience during a live televised debate on Sunday, which featured the leaders of the six main parties contesting the general election in Scotland.

Speaking twice during the programme, Ms Austin challenged SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on how difficult it was for nurses in the NHS at present.

She said she could not manage on her salary, criticising the capping of pay rises at 1% since 2008, and claimed that had to use food banks.

Speaking directly to Ms Sturgeon, she said: “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.

“Don’t come in on your announced visits, come in the middle of any day, into the middle of any A&E department, come on in and see what we’re up against,” she told the first minister for Scotland.

“The nurse on the debate last night was absolutely entitled to raise the issue”

Nicola Sturgeon

In response, Ms Sturgeon said the pay policy was in place due to a “really difficult period with public spending”. “As we see inflation rising, that policy is no longer sustainable, I accept that,” she said.

In addition, the programme saw Ms Sturgeon engage in heated debate over policy with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale.

Hosted by the BBC’s Sarah Smith, it also featured Willie Rennie of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie and UKIP’s David Coburn.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the debate, Ms Austin faced sustained criticism on the social media site Twitter, with many accusing her of lying about having to use a food bank.

On Monday, the Scottish Sun newspaper published an article entirely devoted to exposing Ms Austin’s supposedly “swanky” lifestyle.

It featured screen-grabbed pictures from social media of her drinking sparkling wine, holidaying in New York, and eating at “the posh” Malmaison hotel in February.

Scottish National Party

Nurse finds herself at centre of election smear campaign

The Scottish Sun’s headline

In addition, the SNP’s candidate for Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry, claimed in a BBC Scotland interview that Ms Austin was married to a Conservative councillor. Ms Cherry later apologised, after it emerged that Ms Austin was unmarried.

Speaking to journalists on Monday afternoon, Ms Sturgeon said it was unacceptable to make judgements about Ms Austin’s lifestyle, but added that she retained confidence in Ms Cherry.

“She made a mistake, an honest mistake, and she apologised for that,” she said. “In terms of the wider social media reaction, I don’t think it’s acceptable to make judgements about somebody’s background.

“The nurse on the debate last night was absolutely entitled to raise the issue that she did and, as I said, she raised an issue that I think is one of the biggest in this campaign, the level and value of real wages, not just in the public sector but in the private sector,” she added.

Scottish National Party

Nurse finds herself at centre of election smear campaign

Joanna Cherry’s apology on Twitter

Senior representatives from other political parties, including Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats criticised the alleged smearing of Ms Austin.

Scottish Conservative spokesman Murdo Fraser described it as a disgraceful episode” and said “such behaviour is utterly unacceptable”.

The Royal College of Nursing told Nursing Times that nurses should be valued, but chose not to tackle the smear allegations directly.

Theresa Fyffe, director of RCN Scotland, said: “Nursing staff are rightly praised for the work they do, but warm words don’t pay the bills. The bottom line for nursing staff is that they have seen their pay fall by around 14% in real terms since 2010.

“And over 700 nurses in the UK have had to apply to RCN Foundation for hardship grants because of the government’s pay cap. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“In the last employment survey among RCN members, 30% had struggled to pay gas and electricity bills and 14% had missed meals because of financial difficulties,” noted Ms Fyffe.

“Governments across the UK can and should value their nursing staff, but instead, they’ve chosen to give them another real-terms pay cut for 2017-18,” she said, citing the ongoing 1% pay rise cap.

Theresa Fyffe

Theresa Fyffe

Theresa Fyffe, RCN Scotland

She added: “Nurses are exhausted, morale is low and many nursing staff are asking why they would stay in the profession when they feel so undervalued. Nursing staff should not be expected to pay for the financial pressures on the NHS.”

The issue of nurses using foodbanks was also raised last week at the RCN’s annual congress in Liverpool by the union’s chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies, though it remains a controversial topic for some in the profession.

As previously reported by Nursing Times, earlier this month Theresa May was accused of ducking questions on nurse pay and the use of foodbanks in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

The prime minister was pressed on whether it was acceptable that “lots of ordinary nurses” were now using foodbanks in the light of ongoing pay freezes.

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Thank goodness Sturgeon has some common sense and actually recognises the difficulties. And having a sister working in the NHS no doubt helps her understand the situation.

    Scotland with its devolved NHS has a helpline for whistleblowers to raise concerns anonymously and it has not withdrawn the bursary.

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  • Maybe it's just time for every decent person to boycott The Sun, not just Liverpool and Manchester.

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  • And the lesson is nurse be aware. You stick your head above he parapet at your peril.

    This brings to mind a story in Nursing Times from 1996 (?) about a local authority in London which advertised for what was essentially a Toilet Attendant. Nothing controversial except that the starting pay was higher than that of a D grade Staff Nurse with the NHS in London.

    If I was working my guts out as a Staff Nurse in A & E and was having to use food banks I know what I would do. I would take a long, slow hard look in the mirror and contemplate my options. Seriously. Almost certainly I would choose one which did not involve a working for the NHS in A & E. Everyone knows a chain will break at its weakest point. In this case the chain is the NHS.

    Make sure that weak point isn't you.

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