Many NHS providers across the United Kingdom have made it clear that they want a 12.5% raise to account for inflation and the risks that come with caring for COVID-19 patients.
However, the U.K. government announced earlier this month that National Health System nurses are only getting a 1% raise. Union leaders and nurse advocates say the decision could damage the county’s National Health Service in more ways than one.
A Much-Needed Raise
It’s been a devastating year for the National Health Service, which employs nearly 670,000 nurses across the U.K. The coronavirus pandemic exposed several cracks in the NHS system.
Statistics show the number of full-time doctors working in the NHS grew by 15% from 2000 to 2018. However, the number of full-time nurses stayed relatively the same, even as the amount of care the department was administering increased by nearly 33%.
Things didn’t get any better when outbreaks started occurring across the U.K. and throughout Europe. In normal times, Jess Moorhouse, an intensive care nurse who worked in the London Nightingale emergency hospital, says there’s usually one nurse for every patient in the ICU, but the pandemic forced facilities to assign as many as six patients per nurse, pushing some nurses to the breaking point.
Matt Tacey, a mental health nurse with the NHS, recently described the last year as “hell” in a recent interview with NPR: “It’s been absolutely awful the past year. We’re very frustrated. We’re angry. And we’re upset about how the U.K. has dealt with the pandemic. Nurses and the NHS staff, absolutely exhausted. We’re exhausted.”
The Guardian recently reported that poor planning, low staff, and grueling 12-hour shifts are forcing nurses to leave the NHS in droves. There are over 40,000 vacancies in the NHS in England alone.
To account for everything that’s happened over the last year, the country’s largest nurses’ union, The Royal College of Nursing, requested a 12.5% raise for all NHS nurses.
Soon after, the U.K. health department sent a recommendation to the independent panel that advises the government on NHS salaries offering a salary of just 1%. In the submission, the health department said a “headline” pay increase of more than 1% “would require re-prioritisation”. Officials said the last year has put a “huge strain” on NHS finances and that the current economic outlook “remains uncertain”.
The department argues the raise is more than the average rate of inflation, and that some staff will get more money under a previously-signed three-year deal approved in 2018 that gives nurses, cleaners, and paramedics a raise of at least 6.5%, but that deal is set to expire in the next fiscal year.
The NHS Pay Review Body will issue its final decision regarding pay hikes in May.
The Royal College of Nursing quickly referred to the proposed 1% raise for all NHS staff as “pitiful”. Chief Executive Dame Donna Kinnair said the government was “dangerously out of touch with nursing staff, NHS workers and the public”.
“Nursing staff would feel they are being punished and made to pay for the cost of the pandemic. It is a political decision to underfund and undervalue nursing staff,” Kinnair added.
The country’s left-leaning Labour party said a 1% increase for NHS staff was “the ultimate kick in teeth to our NHS heroes who have done so much to keep us safe over the past year”.
One nurse, Carmel O’Boyle, said she felt “disgusted” over the announcement. “We just want something that reflects the work that we do. We want a fair wage, and I don’t think the government understands at all what the nursing workforce does,” she said.
Tacey says he wasn’t surprised when the government made the announcement, which he described as “criminal”. “The NHS for the last 10 years have experienced austerity from this government. The government time and time again have shown through their actions that they don’t value us. A 1% pay rise, which, in real terms, is actually a pay cut because the inflation this year has gone up 1.7%. So, we’re losing out on pay yet again.”
The slim pay increase could also deter young people from entering the healthcare profession or encourage them to take their talents overseas. Tracey added, “If you increase that pay, people are going to be applying for jobs to work within the NHS. But because it’s so poorly paid, the pay is not worth the stress of working within the National Health Service.”
Kinnair believes the health department will get an earful from now until May when the panel makes its recommendation in the coming weeks, saying, “The government can expect a backlash from a million NHS workers. Taxpayers are supportive of a significant and fair pay rise for NHS workers – this year of all years.”