The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has launched its biggest ever strike ballot, as nurses complain their departments are ‘understaffed, undervalued, underpaid’.
The union will ballot its more than 300,000 members over pay. Earlier this year, below-inflation pay offers were made to nurses in England, Wales and Scotland, and nurses in Northern Ireland are still waiting to hear whether they will receive a pay increase.
In July the government announced a pay rise of at least £1,400 for NHS staff in England and Wales, following the recommendations of an independent pay review board. The settlement will be enhanced for band 6 and 7 nurses, so their pay award will amount to 4%.
Nurses in Scotland were offered a 5% pay rise in the summer, which the RCN urged its members to reject.
Both pay offers are significantly below consumer prices index inflation, which rose by 9.9% in the 12 months to August.
The RCN is seeking a pay rise of 5% above inflation to “overcome a decade of real-terms pay cuts” and support nurses through the cost of living crisis. A recent poll by NHS Providers found that some nurses were regularly skipping meals to feed and clothe their children, while many found it difficult to meet commuting costs.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “Though strike action is a last resort, it is a powerful tool for change. And we must demand that change.
“There are tens of thousands of unfilled nursing jobs across the UK. Unless governments start to value and pay nursing staff properly, there will be a further exodus, adding more pressure to an overstretched system.”
In an open letter to the prime minister today, the RCN said nurses are pushed beyond their limits, which has affected patient safety.
“This year is worse than ever. Our members told us about the last shift they worked – 8 in 10 said the care given to patients was compromised because there were not enough nursing staff on shift,” the letter says.
“Unfair pay is forcing too many to leave. Over 25,000 nurses left last year alone.”
Unless governments start to value and pay nursing staff properly, there will be a further exodus, adding more pressure to an overstretched system.” – Pat Cullen, RCN
Recent analysis by the Nuffield Trust suggested 40,000 left nursing in England last year.
Cullen said that any resulting strike action would be legal, responsible and put patient safety first.
Those eligible to vote in the strike ballot include NHS nurses on Agenda for Change contracts in England, Scotland or Wales, and nurses working for Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland.
It is the first time in the union’s 106-year history that it has balloted members across all four nations of the UK.
The ballot begins today and runs until 2 November.
A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said: “We value the hard work of NHS nurses and are working hard to support them – including by giving over 1 million NHS workers, including nurses, a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year, as recommended by the independent NHS Pay Review Body.
“NHS staff also received a 3% pay rise last year, increasing nurses’ pay by £1,000 on average despite a public sector pay freeze.
“Industrial action is a matter for unions, and we urge them to carefully consider the potential impacts on patients.”
The Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf told the BBC that he hoped to come to an agreement with unions on pay in the near future, while the Welsh government said it had accepted the independent pay review body’s recommendations in full but was unable to go further without additional funding from the UK government.
Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann said recently: “I have always been very clear in my support for our health workers in regards to what I have been able to do within the budgetary availability that I have had.”
He said he was mindful of the cost of living pressures on health workers, but was unable to implement any pay awards locally as Northern Ireland still does not have an agreed executive budget for 2022/23.
More support for international nurses
Meanwhile, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has urged health and care providers to better support internationally trained nurses and midwives living and working in the UK.
There was a 135% increase in the number of internationally trained nurses and midwives who joined the NMC register last year. Almost half of those who joined the register, 23,444, had trained outside the UK.
The NMC has previously found that black and male health professionals were disproportionately referred into its fitness to practise process by employers. Most of those the NMC spoke to said they felt one or more of their diversity characteristics played a part in their referral by an employer.
Andrea Sutcliffe, NMC chief executive and registrar, said: “Internationally trained nursing and midwifery professionals working in the UK make a vital and welcome contribution to people’s health and wellbeing. It’s important they are fully valued and supported and we cannot take them for granted.
“Working with employers and our other partners, we want to make sure internationally trained nurses and midwives are fully supported. Together we must create the most inclusive environment possible – one that supports international recruits to thrive not just survive.”