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OPINION

‘This summer is our chance to say enough is enough’

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The dust is finally settling on the general election and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has entered a politically charged summer with faith that the government will recognise the strength of feeling in our profession and do the right thing.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has walked back into the Department of Health and found his old in-tray in the same place, brimming with the same issues. However, at least one piece of luggage appears to have shifted during the turbulent election flight.

“We may not be pushing at an open door, but it certainly feels like the door is perhaps a little more ajar than before”

In Liverpool, just days after polling day, Mr Hunt told NHS Confederation conference-goers that he was sympathetic to our case.

He said he would raise the RCN’s issues with the chancellor before any decision was made on the 1% cap on pay. We may not be pushing at an open door, but it certainly feels like the door is perhaps a little more ajar than before.

The same week brought a flurry of admissions from politicians that were matched by reflections from NHS leaders on the impact of the policy. Theresa May’s new chief of staff blamed pay freezes in the public sector for the loss of his own constituency. 

One former Cabinet colleague said the cap led to the failure to secure a parliamentary majority on the same day that the Care Quality Commission chief said it was time for NHS staff to be properly rewarded. Niall Dixon of the NHS Confederation added that the cap must be removed to retain NHS staff.

These exchanges lent momentum to the RCN’s “scrap the cap” campaign – not that eager members needed any encouragement.

“Nurses and healthcare assistants are paying for the NHS deficit from their own pockets”

The summer solstice was not able to deter members in Norwich from holding a candle-lit vigil with a poignant message: “at a time of day when most are winding down, there are nursing staff just heading into work”.

Thirty protests were held across the UK, including nurses outside the Department of Health in London and the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

Nurses handed out campaign postcards to be sent to MPs. Many more, on their own time, joined quieter protests outside their own place of work and I joined nurses in Milton Keynes.

Despite the arrival of summer weather on launch day, nursing staff took banners and sashes – in place of buckets and spades – down to the seafront in Blackpool. The tidal wave that may soon engulf the NHS needs little explaining but with your help, we can leave the government in little doubt.

Nurses and healthcare assistants are paying for the NHS deficit from their own pockets. The cap forces people to consider leaving a career they love, while those who stay are overstretched as the NHS struggles without enough staff to provide safe care.

A third of nurses will retire in the next 10 years, but there has never been less certainty about the next generation of nurses at the very moment leaving the EU switches off the supply of international nurses.

“The government must make sure health professionals are given priority”

I’m not the only one to remind ministers that they have more than Brexit on their plate, but the consequences for the NHS are critical.

The opening salvo in the negotiations – giving EU nationals the right to remain after five years – felt welcome but the drive to recruit from across the EU came more recently. The government must make sure health professionals are given priority.

As we build towards a second large day of protest on 27 July, I ask people across the nursing profession to lend their support. When we know it hinders the recruitment and retention of the best people and has a detrimental effect on care, how can we let the cap stay in place? This summer is our chance to say “enough is enough”.

Janet Davies is chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing

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