Anyone who has worked with nurses can tell you they take their job seriously. Indeed, one of the first lessons coming out of medical school for doctors such as myself is “listen to the nurses”. In part this is because they know the patient best. In part it’s because, generally speaking, they don’t suffer fools gladly.
So when the nursing profession, the heartiest of all NHS staff, takes the historic move to strike it is wise to take their concerns seriously. Perhaps, of all the signals that healthcare provision in the UK is spiralling out of control (take ambulance, A&E, cancer and specialist waiting times), this is the most worrying.
Of course there is the issue of pay. Some of this relates to a sense of justice – nurses deserve to be paid properly for such crucial and challenging work. Pay is also a practical concern to individuals. How can they take on the ever increasing pressures at work when the failure to match their pay to inflation has caused ever increasing pressures at home – putting food on the table, keeping their family warm? Despite nurses’ capacity to withstand pressure, they too have their limits.
But there is a greater pay-related issue forcing nurses to act: patient safety. There is the simple maths of poor pay leading to the highest level of staff resignations ever seen, and difficulty recruiting the right people to the right jobs with only the fading memory of claps and praise during the pandemic as an incentive. Not enough staff means poorer care for patients.
It is a simple pragmatic reality for all service industries: supply and demand. As it stands the job of nursing is nowhere near appealing enough to recruit or retain the staff needed to attend to the demands of the public’s health. On a simple operational level, to provide safe patient care, there must be a greater effort to keep nurses in their jobs. National strike action draws attention to the failure of ministers to respond to these market forces, and the subsequent impact they have on patient safety. It is enough of a reason to persevere and momentarily interrupt patient care.
There is a bigger reason though, a reason more personal to each nurse, born from their duty to their patients. It is one thing to lose a patient due to the limits of modern medicine – “we just couldn’t save them”. It is an entirely different life experience to lose a patient because the patient didn’t have access to modern medicine when it mattered most. It is this experience: having the tools and the experience to save lives and prevent disability but simply no time or space to use them properly. It is this that has led to the overwhelming majority of nurses either leaving the NHS or voting to strike.
The powers that be don’t seem to be listening. In the meantime patients are suffering. At least now, the UK’s first national nurses’ strike has got us talking about what is unequivocally the worst healthcare crisis we have experienced. At least now, nurses can help the government to realise that to neglect those who deliver the health service is to neglect those whose lives depend on it.
[See also: Nurses pay is less in real terms than in 2010]