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Summer of protest

Despite a summer of frenzied political activity, election promises and a returning Tory Government, the 1% pay cap that nurses are subject to until 2020 remains in force.

Although health secretary Jeremy Hunt publically recognised that hardworking public sector workers are weary of the austerity measures – and notwithstanding the fantastic response of the emergency teams to a spate of tragedies that shocked the nation – the Government is still not budging.

With the cap still in place and inflation now at 2.9%, nurses will see a further real cut in income. This compounds the 14% loss in relative pay that nurses have shouldered since 2010. 

A nurse asked Prime Minister Theresa May on a pre-election TV debate if it was fair that there has been no change in her pay since 2009. Ms May’s response created a low point in her popularity; nurses and their families living with the reality of low wage increases certainly do not think her refusal to scrap the pay cap is fair.

Nurses’ retaliation comes in the form of a ‘summer of protests’ and an unprecedented official ballot on strike action, organised by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The profession is alarmed at dwindling staffing levels and increasing pressures. 

All these factors affect the quality of care and potentially put patients at risk. Will protests or striking help our nurses? Will working to contract mean services will be so disrupted that nurses will be recognised as the lifeblood of healthcare? I hope so – but I doubt it will mean better pay. 

Interestingly, the nurses that will be protesting are those employed in the NHS under a national salary scale. They have the numbers, the rights and the union leaders to organise industrial action. The majority of nurses, 55%, are not under the Government pay restraint, but are on salaries determined by their employers, such as GP surgeries, private hospitals or independent nursing homes. It is
a broad generalisation, but these nurses are usually paid at levels under the NHS Agenda for Change grades – and with the absence of a collective voice, are likely to remain so. But any success achieved by their NHS colleagues is likely to benefit those nurses. I’d also wager that improved pay would stem the exodus of nurses across the whole healthcare sector.

Although we make up the largest workforce in healthcare, nurses are historically reluctant to take action. But the mood is palpably changing. Recent tragic events, such as the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks and the Grenfell tower fire, have highlighted the dedication of the NHS and public appreciation is high. Nurses protesting over pay could further damage a weakened Government. Watch this space. 

Regardless of your views on protest and strike action, nurses should not miss the opportunity to shape the future of training. The Nursing and Midwifery Council’s (NMC) consultation on training standards closes on 12 September. A related consultation on medicines and prescribing closes on 14 September. Do read them: there are some dynamic proposals.

The NMC recognises that nurses and midwives are undertaking more complex roles than ever before for an increasingly demanding and aging population and want the new proficiencies to ensure that nurses are fit for the future. I just hope there will be sufficient numbers accessing nurse training in the future – it certainly won’t be the current remuneration that attracts them. Ms May, take note.