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'The familiar themes at RCN congress show how little attention politicians pay to the profession'

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This time last week I was in the bubble of the Royal College of Nursing’s annual congress. Counting back, I realised that it was my thirteenth consecutive year at the conference – how time flies.

The feeling of familiarity was reinforced by the fact that the event took place in sunny Liverpool – as it did in four of the past eight years – and the presences of faces that I see every year but only ever at congress, who gave their views from the podium, as forcefully as ever.

Of course, many of the issues debated and discussed at congress were equally familiar from previous years.

For example, two of our best-read articles from the 2019 RCN congress were on a discussion about uniforms and a resolution that was passed calling for more action to tackle bullying.

The former saw opinions in the hall divided over whether England should follow the lead of the other UK countries and introduce a national uniform. In contrast, back in 2009 congress voted in favour of the adoption of a national uniform in England. Bullying in its different guises has also made numerous appearances on the congress agenda in previous years.

Safe staffing legislation and the dangers of insufficient staff, especially the impact on the health of nurses themselves, were also high on the list of topics discussed this year.

It is perhaps ironic that the RCN refers to the motions it votes on as resolutions, which hints at a finality on solving the issues concerned – unfortunately that rarely seems to be the case.

“Politicians don’t need to attend congress themselves to know what the profession is thinking”

As usual, no government ministers attended the conference, due to a decision made several years ago on neutrality – though the Welsh health secretary did visit the exhibition area and it was rumoured that Lib Dem leader Vince Cable was in the conference centre at one point to scope it out for a separate event.

But politicians don’t need to attend congress themselves to know what the profession is thinking – it has plenty of channels to communicate with them.

The national media did attend and, along with the general secretary’s keynote speech, gave a number of motions a few column inches – for example, on the dangers of misusing nitrous oxide as a recreational drug and calls to decriminalise prostitution. But most of the problems facing nurses every day because of pressure and shortages or lack of training failed to get much of a mention.

So, that’s my point, we need to burst the congress bubble so that the vital messages and views expressed at congress reach those who can actually make the necessary changes – or at least influence them.

I don’t want to keep turning up to hear the same issues discussed year after year without resolution, so to speak – and I’m sure many other delegates feel the same.

It would be great if some of the passion, frustration and common sense expressed by the people addressing these issues on the podium could be bottled and sent to government ministers and other politicians and policymakers.

If that were possible, I think we might actually start to see some change in the right direction.

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