“It’s never been tougher” for nursing staff but the profession should not be blamed for care failings, according to the head of the Royal College of Nursing.
In a wide ranging speech at the union’s annual conference today, chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter criticised pension reforms, attacks on pay, staffing cuts and the government’s “dysfunctional” reforms.
He said that the college’s research showed that the number of NHS jobs at risk had increased by 50% in the last year, from 56,000 in November to 60,000 at present.
“What we are seeing is the slow but steady erosion of our NHS, and the essential services it provides,” he told delegates at RCN Congress in Harrogate.
“Whether you work in the NHS, or the independent sector….on a ward or in the community, it’s never been tougher,” he said.
Mr Carter also defended the profession against criticism from commentators, including some in the national media, about standards of care over the past couple of years.
He said it was wrong for the “entire nursing profession” to be blamed for care failings, and that in many instances it was nurses themselves that had highlighted problems.
“It’s not that nurses don’t want to provide that standard of care, rather it’s because the system has just made it impossible,” he said.
In particular he highlighted the “obvious” problem with the care of older patients, which he said demonstrated how the system was getting it wrong in some settings but right in others.
“When the nurse to patient ratio on a paediatric ward is often 1:4, why is it regularly 1:9/ 10/ 11, on an older people’s ward?”
Mr Carter also used his speech to call on RCN members to take a stand against cuts to pay, staffing and pensions by voting against local MPs that failed to listen to their concerns.
“There’s only one certainty in politics – elections. We know that there are an average of 1,800 nurses and healthcare assistants in each constituency of the UK. That’s enough to change a result and kick someone out of office.
“Over the course of the next year, I want to see you writing to your MPs in Westminster, and your politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. I want you to …campaign against the cuts….protect the reputation of nursing and stand firm on the issues that matter,” he told the conference.
Mr Carter also reconfirmed the college’s opposition to attempts to dismantle Agenda for Change pay scale and move to more local pay for nurses, though he did explicitly reject the regional pay changes favoured by the Department of Health. In a submission to a review by the NHS Pay Review Body last month, the DH said it proposed the expansion of “London weighting” style pay zones to more affluent parts of the country.
Mr Carter said: “The Treasury want to look at moving to locally agreed pay.
“Let there be no doubt – the RCN will categorically refuse to accept any move towards local pay.”
He noted, however, that the response by college members to its ballot on pensions earlier this year had been “disappointing”. Only 16% voted, leaving the RCN without a mandate to reject or accept the government’s proposals.
Mr Carter rejected claims that the RCN had opposed the Health and Social Care Bill “too late in the day”, saying he thought the college had been “spot on” in the way it acted.
He also refuted suggestions – including from chief nursing officer for England Dame Christine Beasley – that the college was unable to effectively balance its role as both a union and a professional body.
“There’s a separation between the British Medical Association and the medical royal colleges, and this doesn’t stop a single case of poor care for one moment,” he said.
“The idea patients may be saved if the RCN was either this or that is just nonsense.”