With the RCN’s industrial action ballot in full swing, NHS nurses are suddenly being asked to decide whether they support the unprecedented move of UK-wide strike action.
As the possibility of a strike swings draws closer to actuality, Nursing in Practice has been speaking with nurses across the country to hear their thoughts on the choice that faces them.
Leanne Patrick, specialist nurse in domestic abuse and sexual violence
Striking is something that a lot of people have given a lot of thought. Last time we were asked in an indicative ballot in 2021, the result of which did not formalise industrial action, I think members were more hesitant to strike. The consensus across the board was that there wasn’t much appetite for it.
However, a lot has changed since then. Many of the women I’ve been speaking to have said they’re now on board with strike action after voting not to strike previously. I think a lot of things have happened at once to cause this change. In the cost of living crisis, women are tired, they’re picking up extra bank shifts, and they are seeing their families less. They love their jobs, but it’s become about just making ends meet. Where’s the living, the thriving, the being able to spend time with your family?
Understandably, people are thinking about leaving nursing, leaving the profession entirely, and finding something that offers them better pay.
But as people leave, there’s still the same amount of work to do – if not more, particularly with Covid and managing increasing complexity – but on the shoulders of fewer and few people. It’s inevitable that to some extent, people aren’t going to work in nursing anymore.
Strike action is about saving and retaining those staff.
There has also been a wider increase in appetite for striking in the last year, such as across the rail networks. People are thinking more about how strike action can be a change for good – and how we can do so in the safest, most effective way possible.
Bernadette McQuade, community staff nurse
I think as nurses, patient safety is ingrained in you. A few years ago, I was probably of the opinion that I couldn’t in all honesty strike because I knew my patients needed me. But if we don’t make a stand now, these services might not be here. If we don’t get the pay we deserve, people are going to leave to go to another industry.
If it carries on the way it is, we’re not going to have the nurses we need to look after people. Who will take on that responsibility? You’ve got people who have no relatives nor next of kin – we are the ones who provide their nursing care. If there are no nurses, who is going to take over that role? After all, the care sector is in exactly the same position.
Nine out of ten times, at the end of the month, I’m actually borrowing money from my sons. They all earn a lot more money than I do. It shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have to go to your children and ask them for money. It’s a ridiculous situation to be in.
Nurses are thinking, ‘should I heat my house?’ It’s impacting the mental and physical health of nurses.
Continuity of care is important too. Agency and bank staff are great, and help cover rota gaps, but it isn’t help for continuity of care – and the higher wages they earn per day can attract nurses out of permanent contracts.
You’re not going to get the graduates coming out of university wanting to settle for the wages that we did. They can go elsewhere. This is not greed; it’s a basic necessity to have a decent living wage where you’re not getting to the end of every month and struggling.
Hayley Thrumble, district nurse
As I work for a social enterprise organisation, I am unfortunately not able to be balloted to vote for strike action, but the RCN encouraged me to help support the movement by educating people about the purpose of the strikes and sharing details through social media etc.
The strikes are about far more than just fair pay for nursing. Our staff are overstretched, underpaid and exhausted. Without strike action, we will continue to lose brilliant nurses and leave many organisations with unsafe staffing levels. If this continues to be the reality, patient safety, holistic care and staff health and wellbeing will suffer. We have a duty of care to our patients – and the strikes are about us using our voice to advocate for the vulnerable.
It is also about giving the nursing profession the respect and recognition it deserves. The unattractiveness of the profession is evident in recruitment and retention issues faced across the country. Our nurses are highly educated and skilled professionals managing huge responsibilities on a daily basis. It is so important that our pay accurately reflects the profession. It’s because of patient safety, staff well-being and the future of our NHS that I fully support those who wish to strike.
Geoff Earl, community mental health nurse
I think that there is a real chance that nurses will vote for industrial action. What we’re seeing now is anger across the whole of the UK because the impact of this Government’s policies are so detrimental that it’s impacting nurses everywhere.
Yesterday, in my community team, we had five nurses in what is a minimum team of eight. This meant we only had slots to handle two assessments. This is a crisis team and they were having to push crisis visits over to the next day.
Nurses don’t want to take industrial action; we don’t want to strike. I take it very personally that I have a duty of care to my patients but every day I go into the community, we are completely understaffed and it’s unsafe for many patients; they’re not getting the care or protection they need.
I get contacted by managers all the time saying, ‘please, anyone, can you come in and do anything?’. It’s heartbreaking as a professional nurse to see our profession decimated like that.
I will be voting for industrial action. If I believe in caring for my patients, I have to take action.
Craig Davidson, senior health nurse
My mother was a nurse, so I have been immersed in nurses’ pay conditions my whole life.
I don’t know really any nurses that want to go on strike. It’s something that goes against my ethical and moral values as a person and also a nurse.
But, my mum’s pay conditions are no better than they were at the end of the ’90s. With the current Government, I don’t see anything we can do other than strike.
This is about so much more than pay. Shortages are getting worse and worse – and it’s a real patient care and patient safety issue.
Nurses aren’t robots. We are much more likely to make mistakes if we are overworked and more money is really the only thing that will get more nurses to stay.
I’m not pro-strike, but I don’t see another solution. I really hope that the public is with us because we’re doing it for them, to improve standards of care for them.
Paul Trevatt, retired nurse
For far too long, we have been taken for granted. We are facing an epidemic of nurses leaving the profession, and increased rates of retirement due to low pay and working conditions.
Nurses remain the largest safety-critical healthcare workforce – so, a shortage of nurses is a serious risk to the safety of our patients. I wholeheartedly support the RCN’s decision to ballot their members regarding industrial action.
While many see this as an issue simply about pay, the vote is just as much about promoting patient safety, patient care, and safe staffing. We are not here through choice, but because the Government disrespects nursing and the profession. The ballot sends a strong and clear message to those in power: ‘Enough is enough’.
This article was updated on 13/10/22 to include more interviewees.