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Show me the money: if nurses use food banks the reasons are anything but complex

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Have you decided how to spend this year’s ‘pay rise’? Nurses working in the NHS are more likely to be working out what to cut back on after seven years of pay freezes or below-inflation pay rises.

Back in the 1990s it was generally accepted that nurse pay had fallen behind the professions normally considered to be broadly equivalent such as the police, firefighters and teachers. However, when Labour came into power in 1997 it made serious moves to redress the balance; by 2004 nurses were earning around 40% more than in the mid-90s. The introduction of Agenda for Change in 2004 was designed to link pay to career progression, and for the next few years pay at least kept pace with inflation.

But all that changed after 2010, when the coalition introduced austerity measures after the financial crash of 2008. Since then nurses – and other public sector workers – have endured pay freezes or 1% pay rises. According to the Royal College of Nursing, when inflation is factored in, nurses’ pay has dropped by 14% in the past seven years, and there are no signs that the situation will improve any time soon. The fact that equivalent professions are in the same boat means nurses may no longer be the poor relation, but that’s unlikely to be any comfort as they see their spending power cut year on year.

“Tough decisions have to be made when public finances are squeezed”

Of course tough decisions have to be made when public finances are squeezed, and it’s by no means certain that had Labour been re-elected in 2010 the situation would be any different. However, what’s really worrying is the government’s attitude to the effects of pay restraint.

We’ve been hearing reports from the RCN of nurses struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, going hungry and even using food banks for well over a year, and while I haven’t seen any individuals identified who have used food banks, the College insists they know some members who are.

“The prime minister’s response was breathtakingly blasé”

People make financial decisions such as mortgages based on expectations that their pay will broadly keep pace with inflation, so it’s hardly surprising if they struggle when their earnings shrink so drastically. Yet when asked by Andrew Marr if she felt responsible for nurses being forced to use foodbanks, the prime minister’s response was breathtakingly blasé. She didn’t try to refute the allegation, or even deny she felt responsible, she simply said there are ‘many complex reasons’ why people use foodbanks. I wonder what the people queuing up for food to help them manage until payday – or those working in the foodbanks – thought of that.

So here’s a heads up to candidates from all the political parties as we approach another general election: we have a growing crisis in the NHS because it simply can’t recruit enough nurses. Forcing those still battling to keep the service afloat to queue for charity is only going to make matters worse. And failing to acknowledge that they do so for no other reason than out of sheer desperation is outrageous.


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