It has been another year of uncertainty and short-term fixes for the health service.
Employers have been forced to pay over the odds to fill gaps in the workforce created by cuts to training places. Instead of a long-term plan to deal with rising demand, trusts have been making do with emergency short-term injections of cash just to keep them afloat.
Throughout it all, it has been up to frontline staff to hold the health service together. They’ve cared for record numbers of patients through the most disruptive reorganisation in the history of the NHS and in the face of huge workforce cuts. Every week I see nurses going above and beyond to provide excellent patient care. I also see nursing staff who are overworked, overburdened and facing other uncertainties closer to home. As their pay continues to fall behind inflation, many are struggling to pay their bills and make ends meet - many are starting to wonder if they can even afford to continue working in their chosen profession.
Nurses neither expect extravagant pay rises, nor to receive an eye-watering bonus of the sort dished out to bankers and some senior managers. They just want to care for their patients, and they put up with a great deal of additional pressure and stress without complaint to do this. However, nurses do need their wages to keep up with the rising cost of living and they deserve to know they are respected and valued by their government.
Unfortunately, many nurses are questioning just how much they are valued. The recommendation by the independent pay review body to give staff a small cost of living increase was ignored and the government continues to refuse to listen to the concerns of frontline NHS staff. Worse than this, we are told it is a straight choice between paying staff a fair wage and maintaining safe staffing levels. Nursing staff have spent the last few years doing everything they can to cope with dwindling staffing levels, and will be insulted by the implication that it is, in fact, their request for a fair wage that is putting patient care at risk.
The focus on staffing levels that we’ve seen over the past year is a good thing, and long overdue. But the NHS is facing a workforce crisis: cuts to student places and an ageing workforce mean that, even though trusts recognise the importance of safe staffing levels, they are struggling to provide them. This is what makes the government’s approach to NHS pay so puzzling. When the NHS is struggling to recruit and retain enough staff, why alienate the hard-working, loyal staff who have kept it going this far?
The Royal College of Nursing’s fight for fair pay will continue in 2015 as we redouble our efforts to make the government see sense and do the decent and honourable thing when it comes to nursing pay.
As we enter an election year, there will be promises galore over the future of the NHS, but what our health service really needs is an end to uncertainty. The NHS is a national institution - one of Britain’s greatest achievements - and it deserves a long-term strategy that sets out a realistic and achievable vision as to how it is going to deal with all the rising pressures in the years to come.
The staff who do so much to keep the NHS going, who will be working so hard over Christmas and beyond, deserve a bit of certainty too. They need to be certain they are valued and they can afford to keep doing the job they were trained to do and that they love. An indication from the government that they understand these concerns would make for a much happier Christmas for NHS staff.
Peter Carter is general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing