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'Has nursing been pushed too far this time?'


It comes to something when an event is declared historic even before the first coffee break, but on Sunday something pretty momentous happened at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual congress.

Delegates debated whether they should hold a “summer of protest” to raise awareness of their opposition to the 1% cap on NHS pay rises. The emergency resolution was tabled and passed.

It followed the industrial action survey carried out by the college, in which an unprecedented 52,000 NHS staff made their opinions known. It was the biggest nursing vote ever in the UK, and was the first time in its history that the college has taken steps that could ultimately lead to strikes.

Both the poll and the motion were pretty historic, but we are a long way off from seeing picket lines drawn up yet. Under trade union laws, the RCN must have a 50% turnout in a formal ballot to be able to call a strike. And of that 50% turnout, 80% must be in favour of a strike.

So there is, as many delegates expressed, a lot of work to be done to engage members to vote, and to come out in favour of painting their placards.

“I saw nurses take to the podium at congress and declare that they had changed their minds”

But for the first time ever, the college seems to have an appetite for it. In 2014, its then leaders refused to consult members over industrial action to push the pay issue. This was despite the fact that the Royal College of Midwives decided to strike over the government’s attempt to to ignore the accepted pay review body process and give only those at the top of bands a 1% rise.

But now that mood has definitely shifted. I saw nurses take to the podium at congress and declare that they had changed their minds. After being vehemently opposed to striking just a couple of years ago, they now felt it was their only course of action.

And as former RCN president Andrea Spyropoulos remarked: “What a legacy Theresa May has left, to be the first prime minister to bring nursing to its knees.”

I suspect RCN members have witnessed the British Medical Association take a stand against Jeremy Hunt’s renegotiation of the junior doctors’ contracts, and have been fired up to defend their bank balances too.

Nurses were further outraged by the prime minister’s attitudes to nurses demonstrated by her refusal to accept the poverty some nurses are dealing with on the Andrew Marr show when she was recently asked about nurses using food banks.

This would have subsequently been compounded by the prime minister’s refusal to come and speak to congress in Liverpool this week.

“It will seem to many that the only way to get the prime minister’s attention is to go out on strike”

And it will seem to many that the only way to get the prime minister’s attention – should she be back in Downing Street on 9 June – is to go out on strike.

The plans, this summer, are to raise awareness of the need for member engagement, and to persuade them that action is the only way to stop the government continuing its policy of real-terms pay cuts.

The only worry, for many nurses, is that they may lose public sympathy for their cause. And at congress, delegates spoke about the need to be considerate of patients and service users when deciding on the type of action, and scheduling it.

“Ms May and Mr Hunt have always banked on the goodwill of nursing staff”

Whereas previously, RCN members have always worried that industrial action would harm patients, they now seem to feel that the erosion of the workforce from pay cuts are a bigger potential threat to patient safety.

I think Ms May and Mr Hunt have always banked on the goodwill of nursing staff and other healthcare professionals to keep the NHS going, and to prevent major disruption to its services.

Sadly, I think they’ve pushed it too far this time, and that goodwill has run out.


Readers' comments (9)

  • Feelings are running very high, and many nurses are extremely disgruntled. However, as we`ve seen so many times in the past, getting nurses to actually take part in a ballot, let alone a strike, is almost impossible. (And the government know it..!!!). Our biggest enemy over recent years, has been our own reluctance to actively engage, and demonstrate that we will not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. We often back away because we don`t want to compromise patient safety, but by not taking action, that is exactly what we are doing....

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  • Its called the guilt factor.
    Nurses, you feel and are made to feel guilty by the government and the press so they feel bad about protesting. The newspapers will be full of patients that are in trouble or will pick out some examples of nursing managers that are paid a lot and ask "Why are they on strike?"

    The most important part of being a nurse is caring and you feel bad if you are not doing that. And everybody knows it. And everybody takes advantage And this is your great strength.
    Use it.
    Show the world what you do and how you do it. We have had enough politicians and enough about "British Exit", we have had enough pain and anger and hatred.
    Do you know what we need?
    We need to be nursed with courage and love and strength.
    We need our nurses.
    Show the world how complex modern nursing is by demonstrating in Hyde Park. Show the public different types of nursing and what you do in public. You care if a person is ill, not the person's background.
    Show this.


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  • As nurses we always put our patients first, we work above and beyond what our pay grade suggests. For so long now we have been down graded. Where else in this united kingdom do graduates get paid £2.00 an hour more than unqualified support workers?

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  • What I find hard to understand is a Secretary is on the same payscale in the NHS as a nurse that has to make life or death decisions!

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  • The Conservatives have shown their true colours and intend on privatising the NHS further for their own gains. They care not how it happens only that the profit section is for their benefit and pocket.
    Do they care how compassionate we are... Or how it effects our patients and staff. No they don't and Mr Hunt should have been moved positions long ago. However he is on a mission and it isn't over yet.
    How far will we allow this uncaring shower to dictate to us how the NHS is run. How many of us will suffer burn out and mental health issues due to the constant high levels of stress.
    We are not in this together... Austerity doesn't work and our wage freeze has only affected us. We can't afford to pay for treats for our families, foreign holidays are a distant memory.
    The NHS crisis is not of our making but if we don't fight for it I guarantee you on the 9th June, the catastrophe will continue and where will it all end.

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  • The most effective action nurses can take to safeguard the future of nursing and the NHS is to vote "Labour" at the general election and importantly, encourage others to do the same. Maybe the RCN should be encouraging all it's members to do this.

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  • Remember the Health Secretary did not want the NHS or nursesfeatured in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony?

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  • JH in my view is the main problem. His arrogance is astonishing and its beyond me why he continues misinforming the Prime Minister as regards the Health Service. I too have always wondered why pay scales are set up in such a way that we get paid the same across different professions with varying skill levels. Maybe its a political move designed to retain low skilled staff and promote politicians own brand of "equality." They do say all good things come to an end.....

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  • We need to do something. Theresa May was asked about when were nurses going to get a pay rise, her reply was we have not got a money tree. Yet her and her colleagues have given themselves a pay rise.

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