Promises on nurse pay by Philip Hammond in his budget speech did not go far enough according to some members of the Royal College of Nursing.
They also think that the union’s leaders have been too keen to claim the chancellor’s comments on nurse pay rises as a victory and have written an open letter saying so. They believe that until ministers state what and when nurses will be paid, it’s too early to start notching up the budget statement as a win for the RCN.
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The recent junior doctors’ strike proved one thing – that when galvanised into action, the medics were united and achieved a victory on pay. And it was not an easy victory – it was a triumph over a health secretary that seemed determined to dig his heels in over the issue.
Most nurses have never seemingly had quite the same appetite to strike or take industrial action. Typically, if really pushed to their limits, they might organise themselves around picket lines and work to rule, but they have never caused the mass disruption that the junior doctors’ walkout did in 2015 and 2016. The RCN has generally tended to keep out of such activity – at least officially.
To strike, well it just isn’t very nurse-like is it? Some nurses I have met are emotionally and ethically opposed to even discussing it. At the RCN Congress in Liverpool this year, that tide seemed to be turning. Industrial action seemed to be a course of action more nurses than ever before were prepared to consider to try to get rid of the 1% cap on pay rises.
The RCN members who have publicly written to their leaders state that waiting until spring, as the union suggests, to find out what the pay offer will be is not an option for staff currently facing another harsh winter crisis.
“Public sympathy hangs in the balance and while on the whole, the public backs nurses, any action that inconveniences patients could put that sympathy at risk”
A full-blown strike is legally difficult because the government demands unions meet a very high turnout in any ballot, and a very high percentage of those must then vote for strike action. The junior doctors demonstrated that disruptive action can often encourage a minister into finding a solution.
Of course, winter is the time when there is most media attention focused on NHS front doors. It’s a hard decision for nurses to make – public sympathy hangs in the balance and while on the whole, the public backs nurses, any action that inconveniences patients could put that sympathy at risk. That said, the nurses writing to the RCN leadership argue that the government’s position on pay is helping drive many nurses off the register, which is a far bigger patient safety concern.
Before the budget, it certainly looked like the government and unions were heading for a public punch-up if no movement on pay was included in Mr Hammond’s speech. Now that has happened, the RCN wants to enter what it describes as the next phase of influencing and applying pressure to ensure the independent pay review body can do its job.
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However, there are some activists who feel playing the waiting game and gently trying to lobby their MPs is not going to lead to anything substantial in their pay packets, and they are trying to steer the profession into a full-on collision course with a plan of industrial action. Time will tell who wins the argument, but one thing is for sure. Such appetite for action is unprecedented by RCN members, and not taken lightly.
The government may have thought it bought some time with its budget promise last week, but there remains a lot of anger out there – nurses still need confirmation that they will get a decent pay rise and that it will arrive sooner rather than later.
Update: Since this editorial was written, it has emerged in an interview that the health secretary wants a “more professional pay structure” to result from negotiations on updating the Agenda for Change contract. This could potentially see basic pay increased, but in return to cuts for weekend and night shift pay.