In Britain, nurses prepare for unprecedented strike over pay

Doctors and nurses were lauded for their efforts during the Covid-19 crisis but are struggling with pay and stress levels. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON – Mr Chukwudubem Ifeajuna, a nurse in the south of England, loves his job. But in December, he will walk out for two days as part of the biggest ever strike by Britain’s nurses, which he says is necessary for staff and patient welfare alike.

The industrial action on Dec 15 and 20 is unprecedented in the British nursing union’s 106-year history, and comes as the state-run National Health Service (NHS) braces itself for one of the toughest winters ever.

Mr Ifeajuna has seen members of his team leave to work in supermarkets, where there is less stress and better pay, while he has had to cut back on spending.

“I have a few staff who are using food banks at the moment. I’ve had to cut down on a lot of things with the kids which I can’t afford to provide for them because of the high cost of living. So it’s really, really tough, for everyone, not just myself,” he told Reuters.

“We are striking because we deserve to be paid better,” he said. “We haven’t had decent pay for over a decade now.”

Another nurse, Ameera, who asked not to have her full name used, said: “We have not chosen industrial action lightly. We have tried to negotiate, but we can’t settle this in any other manner.”

Doctors and nurses were lauded by the public and politicians for their efforts during the Covid-19 crisis. But some of them paid the ultimate price, said Ameera. 

“I had a few of my colleagues that passed away from Covid-19,” she said. “They have families and they gave their life to working for the NHS, and for what? Just for the government and the world clapping for us?”

A labour strike is also impacting Britain’s rail, postal and education sectors, as workers struggle with soaring prices.

Ms Patricia Marquis, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union in England, said the government must listen.

“This is not something that nurses do at the drop of a hat,” she told Reuters.

The RCN says experienced nurses like Mr Ifeajuna are 20 per cent worse off in real terms than they were in 2010 after a string of below-inflation pay awards, and are seeking a pay rise of 5 per cent above retail price index (RPI) inflation.

That would amount to a pay rise of 19.2 per cent, based on October’s inflation data. The government says the RCN demands would cost £10 billion (S$16.6 billion) a year and are unaffordable.

But the RCN’s Ms Marquis said that without higher pay, staff would continue to leave the profession, increasing the pressure on those who remain and ultimately damaging patient care.

Mr Billy Palmer, at the Nuffield Trust health think-tank, told Reuters that those who were considering leaving “often cite issues around not having enough staff to do a good job”, but their departure further exacerbates the staffing problem.

“It’s the most vicious of circles”, he said.

Mr Ifeajuna says he has also sometimes considered quitting.

“But each time I’ve had the chance, I sort of had to pause for a minute and say ‘I can’t leave my patients. I can’t leave my colleagues to suffer alone’,” he said. REUTERS, AFP

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