National Comment Comment

It's the ideal time to back our NHS staff

The one percent pay rise fails to reflect the selfless efforts of NHS nurses

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Image Credit: Tim Dennell

When you last clapped for the NHS workers, what was your motivation behind doing so? Did you feel inclined to step outside to flout your virtuous character? Or did you pause your latest Netflix ‘binge’ show to demonstrate your appreciation for the efforts of our NHS staff? What’s important isn’t the number of times you remembered the weekly Thursday ritual. You can be forgiven for experiencing clapping fatigue as the first lockdown wore on. However, Boris Johnson’s decision to give NHS nurses only a one percent pay rise proves that his weekly clap was more superficial than meaningful.

Back in September, I highlighted how Covid-19 was taking away “forgotten victims” due to delays in cancer referrals and treatment. This dire situation has spiralled out of control.  Cancer Research UK’s most recent findings found by the end of 2020 there were over 40,000 people that should have started their treatment. They had not done so. Early diagnosis is critical in the ‘battle’ against cancer and the “majority of these are people who are living with cancer but just don’t know it”. A growing backlog for treatment has emerged out of Covid-19 and Action Radiotherapy found that the number of those waiting for treatment could be as high as 100,000. Looming in the shadow of Covid-19 is a long-term health crisis. A crisis which can’t be solved by two doses of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines. As the NHS waiting list reaches a 4.6 million high, the UK Government’s response has been to renege on its commitment to raising the pay for NHS staff by 2.1 percent.

What is the correlation between NHS workers’ pay and tackling the ever-growing waiting list for routine and cancer-related treatments you may ask?

The NHS is already understaffed, with an existing shortage of 85,000 personnel. The proposed marginal rise in pay will potentially result in an exodus of nurses when the service is overstretched and in a debilitated condition. Whenever you hear a news outlet speak to a frontline NHS worker a clear message resonates every time. They are tired, overworked and overlooked. Unfortunately, it has required a pandemic to bring to attention pressing problems which for some time have impaired the institution’s ability to provide an efficient service.

A short time after the opening of the Nightingale hospital, The Guardian reported that Covid-19 patients were turned away due to a shortage of nurses. Despite a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care refuting this suggestion, as the pandemic has worn on it has become evident that our hospitals have become overwhelmed with patients. Speaking to The Evening Standard, Professor Rupert Pearse, a staff member at Bart’s Health Trust in east London, said “I don’t think we had a system for pulling in staff with relevant experience. Staff was always the biggest challenge”. The virus has brought to light and exacerbated a challenge which has always been lurking in the background.

Challenges originally perceived as meagre or moderate often require extreme circumstances to demonstrate the damage they can inflict. This is far from ideal, as the delay in confronting the challenge in question has allowed a new set of problems to develop.

Nationwide, GPs are experiencing the consequences of our existential crisis in staffing everyday. A GP for the Isle of Wight recently told The Guardian “I never thought the NHS would get to this, having to put coronavirus above cancer, with patients having their potentially curable operations cancelled”. This dilemma isn’t unique to the Isle of Wight. The NHS’s challenge of inadequate levels of staffing has for too long been a challenge that our politicians have deferred dealing with.

What is most astounding is that some political commentators have defended the one percent pay rise by arguing the rise reflects the difficult economic climate. In writing an article for The Spectator titled “Now isn’t the time for an NHS pay rise”, Tom Goodenough advocated viewing the pay rise in “the wider context of the current economic situation”. Firstly, if our NHS nurses aren’t deserving of a substantial pay rise after selflessly risking their lives and enduring emotionally and physically draining days, then when is the ideal time? The shoddy pay rise is obscenely oblivious to the unprecedented demands which have been placed on NHS staff. Secondly, not investing comprehensively in the NHS will be more costly in the long term, as early diagnosis for cancer cases prevents more expensive treatment further down the line. Investing properly in our NHS now, despite the perilous economic environment, makes economic sense and most importantly will save lives.

The current debate is devoid of pragmatism. The Department of Health’s recommendation of a one percent pay rise is far too low and equates to NHS nurses receiving a mere extra £3.50 a week, according to the Royal College of Nursing. Though, the Royal College’s suggestion of a 12.5 percent rise in pay is unrealistic. A balance needs to be struck. Scotland have recently rewarded their NHS workers with a one off £500 bonus payment, alongside a four percent pay rise. The Spectator’s Katy Balls has argued that the Chancellor could be more receptive to imitating a form of bonus payment in England, as it would avoid “temporary spending becoming permanent”. At first glance, the bonus payment seems a fitting alternative for compensating staff for their hard work, while not adding unsustainable spending to the government’s balance sheet. But, this isn’t a long-term solution to our staffing crisis. It is once again passing the buck to the next government and generation of politicians.

You can donate to Cancer Research UK here.

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