Some 10,000 nurses with the National Health Service in England, Whales, and Northern Ireland walked off the job today, the second time in less than a week, as part of an ongoing pay dispute with the government. But it’s not just nurses. All types of public employees, including firefighters, baggage handlers, paramedics, driving examiners, immigration officers, bus drivers, construction workers, mail carriers and railway conductors are all participating in the strike in what the British press is calling the “winter of discontent.”
The demonstration is putting much of public life on hold, including hundreds of medical procedures, and the government is warning the public not to travel around Christmas Eve.
The workers are protesting what some have called “austerity budgets” that have reduced pay increases for public service workers amid record high inflation. The nurses are asking for a 19% pay raise, which is a 5% raise on top of the increased cost of living, but the government says it doesn’t have the money to meet their demands.
“They’re taking advantage of us,” said Rachel Ambrose, 40, a mental health nurse in Oxford. “We don’t seek an extravagant lifestyle. We’re nurses. We just want to pay our bills. We want heat.”
She said that her colleagues are “fired up” over the pay dispute. “We’re angry, we’re determined,” she said, adding that the strikes “will continue because they are ignoring us.”
Estimates show the NHS is currently short some 50,000 nurses because the U.K. can’t train enough nurses to meet soaring demand. It currently imports half of all new nurses from overseas.
Around 10,000 ambulance workers in England and Wales walked off the job today as well and the government is bracing for potential disruptions to emergency care. Nurses who work in emergency rooms are still on staff, but most non-essential procedures and appointments have been rescheduled. Some 1,200 members of the military have been called in to provide emergency medical transport.
“We have not had pay rises that meet inflation. That’s why you see nurses going to food banks and the number of vacancies have drastically increased,” said Anthony Johnson, 29, a cardiac nurse in Leeds. “We have horrendous nurse-to-patient ratios. Our clinical guidelines are one nurse to eight patients, but we never generally meet that. The reality is, it’s one nurse to 13 patients, so it’s constantly unsafe and puts patients at risk.”
Nurses can typically earn a higher rate of pay by working abroad. The U.K. has lost many medical professionals to competition overseas. The average nurse in the U.K. currently makes around 36,000 euros a year, or $46,000.
Johnson said he likes working in England, but he knows of a lot of nurses who are looking for work in other countries just to make ends meet.
“We’re training nurses for export, usually to Canada, Australia and New Zealand … where nurses can make an extra 10,000 pounds [$12,200],” Johnson said. “Rather than investing in our staff, the U.K. government is stealing nurses from other parts of the world. They are cutting pay and letting that happen.”
The government maintains that the nurses’ demands are unaffordable and that it is following the recommendation to have an independent commission look into potential wage changes.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay called the strikes “disappointing” and warned of the potential impact the Royal College of Nursing’s decision would have on patient care. “The RCN’s demands are unaffordable during these challenging times and would take money away from frontline services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic,” he said.
Ambulance services said they won’t be able to respond to every call, so patients may have to find their own way to the hospital.
“Ambulances will still be able to respond during the strike, but this will only be where there is an immediate risk to life,” said Stephen Segasby of North East Ambulance Service. “This means that less serious calls will not receive a response and some patients might be asked to make their own way to hospital, where it is safe for them to do so.”