Countries all over the world are facing record-high inflation. Just like the U.S., the U.K. has seen the cost-of-living increase by more than 8% year-over-year, according to the latest figures from the Consumer Price Index. Food, housing, and transportation have all gone up considerably in price in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and nurses are feeling the pain.
The National Health Service has been criticized for not paying healthcare workers enough for their time, and now some providers are skipping meals just to make sure they have enough money to feed and clothe their children, according to a survey involving several hospital administrators.
Some said nurses are even calling out sick before they get paid because they can no longer afford the cost of transportation. Many are also taking second jobs outside of the NHS to make ends meet.
“There are heart-rending stories of nurses choosing between eating during the day and being able to buy a school uniform for their children at home,” said Miriam Deakin, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers. “Increasing numbers of nurses and other staff, particularly in the lower pay bands, are finding they are unable to afford to work in the NHS.”
Many facilities have created programs to help staff pay for essentials. Reports show that 27% of NHS trusts already have food banks for staff, and another 19% plan to open one in the coming months.
The survey also shows that some nurses have stopped contributing to their NHS pension in order to free up additional income. Some cannot fill up their cars because of petrol price rises, while others have mental health issues due to the stress of paying their bills.
Some low-paid healthcare workers and assistants are also quitting their jobs to look for work in restaurants and stores.
Around 68% of trusts said that staff leaving for better terms and conditions elsewhere was having a “significant or severe impact” and exacerbating existing recruitment and retention problems.
“Trust leaders are seeing a slowdown in people willing to join the NHS, as well as looking to join other industries such as hospitality or retail which offer more competitive pay. The sad fact is some can earn more working for online retailers or in supermarkets,” Deakin added.
“It’s like the UK has gone back to Victorian times, when workers were so poor they couldn’t afford to feed their families,” said Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison. “This is a shocking state of affairs. Ministers should be ashamed that things have come to this.”
Many staff members are angry with the NHS after it offered providers a 3% raise when inflation is over twice that rate.
Government officials also worry that rising prices could have a negative impact on patients, especially during the winter if people can’t afford to heat their homes.
“We know NHS staff are struggling with cost-of-living pressures, and we have given over 1 million NHS staff a pay rise of at least £1,400 in line with the recommendations of the independent pay review body,” said one official.
“The government has also taken action to save a typical household an average of £1,000 a year on energy bills through a new ‘energy price guarantee’ – protecting them from soaring energy costs.”
But Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, says people will need additional assistance to get through what could be a painful winter as the war rages on in Ukraine, which could lead to spiking energy prices.
“Unless there is a lot of government financial support, I think this winter will be very difficult for a lot of people,” he said, noting the cold can worsen conditions from heart disease to chronic lung disease and diabetes, while Covid or flu infections can also aggravate such illnesses,” Tang said.
“All of this will culminate in higher admissions to the NHS for the exacerbation of these chronic conditions due to the cold, inability to heat their homes and inability to eat enough – with possible malnutrition, particularly in children, as people have to buy cheaper and less healthy foods due to rising food bills – and the additional burden of returning seasonal respiratory virus infections,” he added.
Tang also worries that inflation will make it harder to discharge patients from hospitals as temperatures drop.
“As I saw during my junior doctor days, in the winter months some patients will not want to go home – to a cold, damp house, alone, with inadequate heating and food – when they can get a warm bed in hospital with three meals a day and helpful, friendly staff and other patients to chat to.”
Dr. Naru Narayanan, the president of the HCSA, the hospital doctors’ union, shares Tang’s concerns. “We are extremely concerned about the impact of the dual impact of flu and Covid this winter in an NHS which is creaking under the strain of staffing issues,” he said.
“There is a real risk we will see operations canceled en masse and an even greater crisis if we don’t act preemptively.”