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Nurses are sometimes scared of being too political – but their voices are vital

Ann Keen, volunteer nursing adviser to Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, explains that nurses’ voices should be valued in political discussion – particularly when it comes to inequality.

When I became the first nurse to become a Government minister, people would say ‘gosh you’ve done well for a nurse’. That’s why I felt it was important to get across how crucial nursing is to the running of the health service.

In acute care and in the community, we have lost so many nurses, it’s hard to even retain those who are half way through training.

Inequalities in health are widening, and it’s impacting staff too. How could you be happy when you go into work every morning and maybe more staff have left, maybe you’ve got more responsibility, and you’re facing trauma because you can’t give the care you want?

I remember how that feels. I remember going home and thinking, ‘I said I would go back to that lady and I didn’t’. It tore me apart.

Now in nursing you hear these stories every day, and it’s tearing nurses apart.

I cannot understand why and how we are tolerating this. This is my NHS – which I was born into, worked for 40 years in and that I will defend always.

Some people can’t understand why I went from being a district nurse to being a minister, but in the 80s there was a recession and inflation had hit 17%.

I was visiting older, frail, elderly people who had been waiting for hip replacements. Their homes were so cold that I could see their breath in the air.

I found Annie, my first patient, dead from hypothermia. Within a few days, another patient of mine was close to dying. I didn’t have a mobile phone, there wasn’t a phone in the house, so I had to find a phone box to call an ambulance.

I knew then that I couldn’t fix why she died; only politics could fix that. That’s what encouraged me to say ‘enough of this’. I started speaking about nursing, I stood for parliament, was defeated, but then I stood again in ‘97 and won.

Then I sat behind Gordon Brown as he was giving money for pensions, for fuel, for poverty; and I thought of Annie.

Now, there will still be nurses without enough heat or food, people are suffering from hypothermia and malnutrition, and it’s 2022 in the UK. That has to be challenged because it is unacceptable.

I know we can’t have a good quality, patient-safe health service unless we’ve got the nursing workforce right. They are the guardians of safety.

But nothing will change unless the politicians have a personal experience with the nursing care that is given at the standard it is given today.

It’s important that nurses recognize that they need to get involved in questions of inequality and ask themselves, ‘what are you doing about the fact that you’re going into cold houses?’

That’s where nurses have difficulty because they don’t know if they can say anything in case it’s too political.

Of course it’s political, because if you can’t afford to put the heating on in 2022, it’s only a politician that can turn it back on for you.