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RCN members embark on grassroots safe staffing campaign


“We are nurses and we can do this” was the rallying cry from Royal College of Nursing president Anne Marie Rafferty, as members launched a crusade against dangerous understaffing.

Professor Rafferty was addressing a room filled with dozens of passionate frontline nurses on Thursday afternoon, as they began shaping a grassroots campaign to get safe staffing enshrined in law in England.

“Not getting a break was more the exception but it’s much more now the norm”

Michael Corman

Addressing delegates at RCN headquarters in London yesterday, Professor Rafferty said this was “probably one of the most important campaigns that the college has ever run”.

She urged the group to have patience, noting that it took 30 years to get nurse registration legislation passed, but said it was important to be ready for when a policy window opened.

Whatever the end result, the campaign group would win “serial successes” along the way, she noted.

Professor Rafferty, whose number one priority during her presidency is to bolster the fight for safe staffing law, told the nurses: “It’s as if you are creating a nursing nuclear reaction where the power and energy that is generated here will permeate around a community.”

She concluded by declaring: “We are nurses and we can do this.”

Among those in attendance was Michael Corman, an operating department nurse in East London. 

michael corman

michael corman

Source: Gareth Harmer

Michael Corman

He told Nursing Times he had seen staffing become a “bigger and bigger problem” over the 23 years he had been in the profession, as demand had increased.

“Nursing has always been a hard job,” he said. “I think staff are working harder and harder and the classic examples of that are now it’s much more common that you don’t get a break, whereas before maybe not getting a break was more the exception, but it’s much more now the norm.

“If you’ve got somebody who has not had a break for 10 hours and not had a chance to eat properly or rest… how safe are they maybe to do a complex drug calculation,” he asked.

“I don’t know but I would guess that perhaps not as safe as if they had had lunch and relaxed and been able to take their mind of stuff and have a drink and go to the toilet,” he noted.

Mr Coram said one of the key aims of the campaign was to raise awareness because he believed many members of the public would not know there was currently no safe staffing law in place and would be “horrified” to find out.

The strength of the campaign would come from the fact “ownership” was in the hands of members, Mr Coram added.

“Staff health and wellbeing suffers greatly due to low staff numbers”

Ali Upton

Ali Upton, an accident and emergency nurse in Surrey, who sits on the RCN’s national safety committee representing the South East region, said inadequate staffing not only affected the wellbeing of nurses but also had the potential to impact patient care.

“Safe staffing, lack of staffing and the effects that it has on staff has always been something I’m quite passionate about,” she told Nursing Times.

“Staff health and wellbeing suffers greatly due to low staff numbers and obviously if staff health and wellbeing suffers then there is the potential for patient care to suffer,” she added.

“There’s also the potential for it to escalate because then staff go off sick with burnout, so then you are even shorter, so it’s a cyclic,” she said.

Safe staffing legislation has already been won in Wales and is currently being considered in Scotland.

Patricia Marquis, director of the RCN in England, said lessons learnt from those two countries would help shape the campaign for England.

However, she noted that, while the law in Wales only covered acute settings, the aim was to secure legislation in England for all sectors.

She noted that the campaigners in England had “a different battle on our hands” from those in Wales and Scotland due to political circumstances.

While acknowledging that Brexit had taken centre stage, Ms Marquis said she had “no doubt” that the safe staffing campaign would get oxygen in parliament.

“We are a really, really important group of people delivering a really, really important service and the public are with us,” she told Nursing Times.

patricia marquis

patricia marquis

Source: Gareth Harmer

Patricia Marquis

However, though legislation is the goal, Ms Marquis said she hoped the campaign leading up to it would help foster positive change around nurse staffing, referencing how the fight for the smoking ban had along-the-way resulted in the habit becoming socially unacceptable.

“It’s not the legislation that changes stuff, it’s the journey, and the legislation tops it off,” she said.

“We need to think how we build that into our campaign, that it isn’t all about the legislation it’s about those other things that we will win as we start to change the culture about what is and isn’t okay,” she added.

Ms Marquis said the drive for safe staffing would sit alongside the RCN’s Fund Our Future initiative, which is calling for £1bn a year to be reinvested in undergraduate nurse education.

The event yesterday was attended by RCN members, reps and activists from each of the nine regions in England.

The next aims of the campaign are to work out what the legislation may look like by defining what “staffing for safe and effective care” means in practice.



Readers' comments (4)

  • I’m in a community setting and I’m shocked by staffing levels. I’m doing my placement with the community nurses. It’s an amazing job and there are some fantastic nurses. They are plagued by sickness and a manager on long term sickness leave. They have clinical roles, deal with stores and ordering and have all the paperwork to manage. Jobs aren’t done properly, paperwork is incomplete, delegation is done by a computer system. I’ve seen nurses delegated as many as 22 visits in a day. And the worse thing is everyone just try’s to cope and do what they can, incomplete visits are moved to the next day. No one has a lunch break. The computer is suppose to incorporate travel time but if there are too many visits it just takes out travel time and visits can actually overlap. To me it’s a dangerous situation and instead of being martyrs staff should complain to senior management and make care safe for patients. This legislation would be fantastic.

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    “ She admitted hitting the baby during her 24-hour shift after seeing video evidence. “ Shocking ....

    The legislation is MUST! Long shifts combined with emotional involvement in patients’ problems can cause burnout....

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  • Well done on the move.
    It is a shame that the group chosen to be involved was not a bit more reflective of the membership.

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  • Mental health well being, would be greatly helped if their was safe staffing for all professions, particularly where staff vacancy is not at the full complement. In rural hospitals staff will often make up this short fall, by working many longer hours on-call, often at weekends and during the week. Who is looking at this ? staff themselves can only attempt to change & challenge these things by taking out a "Grievance" against the employer, when actually the employer (who are aware of this issue at management level) should be upholding the policies that we find in HR. These are the real issues that are not being addressed in our NHS, and lead to individual and family difficulties with break up and burn-out and a danger to the sustainability of the service that they have for so long propped up. In some financially strapped organisations this #fail may quite happily be seen by management as a chance or an opportunity to reduce or cut a service as a cost saving. Who is responsible for looking after staff in the NHS ? their is no engagement by senior management with the shop floor, decision making is with senior management teams and minutes of meetings are not available, all we see are very limited briefing papers which do not give any detail despite requests to have detail of the process. Transparency is missing.

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