The NHS celebrated its 65th birthday last Friday. Nurses have always been an essential part of the institution and governments have always acknowledged that - even if they haven’t shown quite as much respect (in terms of pay and conditions) as we’d like.
At my first-ever Nursing Times Awards in 2010, I remember sitting next to the then health secretary Andrew Lansley. He was talking about driving home that night, so we had a conversation about why he didn’t have a ministerial car.
He told me it was an easy decision to get rid of it. “It’s worth about six nurses’ salaries to have that for a year,” he told me.
That was the currency in which the government used to measure the value of something - the number of nurses that it would hire.
If they were trying to introduce a cost-cutting measure, they would tell you how many nurses you could employ with the money they’d save. By taking this approach it demonstrated nurses were unequivocally a force for good. Having fewer of them was bad - you would see care of a lesser quality. Implicitly, it said to the public - if there is money to be spent, it should be spent on nurses.
The government used to measure the value of something by the number of nurses it would hire. Implicitly, it said if there is money to be spent, it should be spent on nurses
But last week the present health secretary Jeremy Hunt changed the unit of currency while talking about charging international visitors to use the NHS on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He was responding to a question about how much money the levy for international students could raise. He said this would be about £200 per student, which he said would be the equivalent of “about 1,000 GPs” .
It’s interesting that he chose to refer to the amount in GPs instead of nurses. Nurses are generally paid less and so he would have been able to boast a more impressive number of nursing posts.
But is this change in currency a sign of something else? Does it signify the transfer of commissioning to GPs? Does the government think in the light of crises in care, nurses cannot be held up as paragons or do ministers think it’s ironic to talk about nursing posts considering cuts and an impending staff shortage? Or is it just that nursing isn’t considered valuable any more after the recent care scandals? Is having access to a GP the main measure of an effective NHS?
It may be a throwaway remark, and I hope it’s not a permanent alteration to the script. Nurses are an important
part of the health landscape, and to get their voice heard, they must be an important part of the political landscape too.
Jenni Middleton, editor
email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @nursingtimesed