Nurses across much of the UK launched a historic strike on Thursday as they walked out of hospitals and joined the pickets after several years of falling wages and standards left the country’s nationalized healthcare system in a state of crisis. .
Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the UK’s largest nursing union, are taking industrial action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the latest and most unprecedented in a wave of strikes that has swept Great Britain this winter. . It is the largest strike in the 106-year history of the RCN.
But it comes after several years of hardship for employees of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), a revered but beleaguered institution struggling with understaffing, high demand and shortages. shortage of funds.
“I went into nursing to care for patients, and over the years my ability to provide the level of care my patients deserve has been compromised,” said Andrea Mackay, who has worked as a nurse for seven years at a hospital in the southwest of England. CNN about her reasons for striking Thursday.
“The reality is, every day, nurses across the UK are entering understaffed hospitals,” Mackay said. “The NHS has been running on the compassion and goodwill of nurses for years… It’s unsustainable.”
“This is about paying staff what they’re worth so they can pay the bills,” Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse preparing to join the strike, told CNN, adding that pressures from staff have paralyzed the emergency department in who works regularly. out of my worst shifts I was the only nurse for 28 sick kids…it’s not safe and we can’t provide the care these kids need sometimes,” she said.
Pamela Jones, on the picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, told PA Media: “I’m on strike today because I’ve been a nurse for 32 years; in those 32 years the changes have been astronomical.
“I am very sorry for the young women who are now trying to get into the profession, they have to pay for their training. The public needs to understand the pressures everyone is under. You just have to go into the ER and see the queues, there are no beds.
“We want to save our NHS, we don’t want it to disappear, and I think this is the way to go, it’s the only way we can get our point across. We don’t want to be here. I was really torn about the strike because it’s not something that I never, ever thought in my life that I would have to do, but still the government has pushed us into this.”
He added: “I hope the government will listen, because none of us want to be here, we just want a fair wage increase.”
The strike will take place over two days, Thursday and next Tuesday, and not all of the NHS Trust will take part. But it marks one of the most dramatic uses of industrial action in the NHS’s 74-year history and has intensified debate over the state of Britain’s public services.
The RCN is calling for a 5% wage increase above retail inflation, which in current figures equates to a 19% rise, and for the government to fill a record number of staff vacancies that it argues is jeopardizing the patient safety. Steve Barclay, the UK health secretary, told CNN in a statement earlier this week that demand for him is “not affordable.”
The standoff follows years of disputes over the level of pay for NHS employees. Nurses’ pay fell 1.2% every year between 2010 and 2017 once inflation was taken into account, according to the Health Foundation, a UK charity that campaigns for better health and healthcare. For the first three of those years, his salary was frozen.
Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has skyrocketed, a years-long trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A record 7.2 million people in England, more than one in eight residents, are currently awaiting treatment, according to the British Medical Association. Seven years ago, the number was 3.3 million.
“I work alongside some amazing (nurses) who came in early, left late, worked through breaks and lunch, agreed to come in on their days off for an overtime shift to make sure their patients are as safe as we can be. Mackay told CNN.
“I don’t have all the answers and I understand there is a limit to the money available, but unless the government prioritizes health, patient safety (and) strengthening the workforce, then the NHS will collapse,” he said.
The NHS, which is free at the point of care, forms a central part of Britain’s national psyche and the third rail of the country’s politics. During the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of Britons stood outside their homes to applaud NHS workers, in a weekly ritual promoted by the government.
But that has since been criticized as an empty gesture by disgruntled employees, who say the government’s pay offers to staff have not been in the same spirit.
Earlier this year, the RCN rejected a government offer to increase nurses’ pay by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year, which equated to an average increase of 4.3%, well below the rate of inflation.
“I have seen patients who can remember life before the NHS. They know how precious it is because they’ve seen what happened before,” Mackay said.
Labor leader Keir Starmer attacked Rishi Sunak on the strike during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, telling him that “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he stopped the strike by reaching an agreement with the RCN.
The industrial action was “a badge of shame for this government,” Starmer said.
Most of the nurses taking part in Thursday’s action will be striking for the first time in their lives. But they are uniting with workers across Britain’s public services to walk off the job and demand better pay and conditions, fueling a rising strike wave the likes of which the UK has not seen for decades.
Rail, bus, highway and border employees across Britain are taking industrial action this month, essentially halting various forms of travel. Teachers, postal workers, porters and paramedics will also go on strike in December.
It has left the government struggling to respond. Members of the British armed forces were being trained to drive ambulances and fight fires in the event of a strike, ministers said earlier this month. On Tuesday, the Police Federation said so objected to a request Police officers drive ambulances.
And the unions have threatened more action in the New Year, when the cost-of-living crisis that has gripped Britain in recent months is expected to get even worse.
A total of 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the most recent month for which figures are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That’s the highest number for any month since 2011.
The impact of those strikes has led parts of the British media to revive memories of the so-called Winter of Unrest in 1978 and 1979, when demonstrations paralyzed the UK, although this year’s level of industrial action constitutes a fraction of those months. . , where several million days of work were lost.
Sunak has been accused by opposition parties of refusing to bargain in good faith with unions and of not doing enough to prevent strikes from taking place.
But the ongoing disputes are a thorny issue for both major parties. Labour, a party with strong historical links to the unions, has been walking a tightrope, urging the government to do more but refusing to explicitly support the picketers’ demands.