BRITAIN’S nurses are on the brink of industrial action for the first time.
The Royal College of Nursing’s consultative ballot shows 78 per cent of nurses are ready to strike — and more than nine in 10 are up for action of other kinds to resist Conservative plans for an eighth successive year of shrinking wage packets.
The RCN estimates that the below-inflation 1 per cent rises since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition imposed “austerity” mean nurses’ incomes have shrunk by 14 per cent since we last had a Labour government.
At the same time the catastrophic squeeze on NHS Trust budgets across the country as a result of chronic underfunding means that trusts around the country are proving unable to fill nursing vacancies, a task made harder by the removal of bursaries for student nurses by the Tories in their 2015 “spending review.”
There are some 40,000 posts unfilled across England, twice as many vacancies as existed just four years ago.
The Royal College of Nursing has not taken strike action once in the 101 years of its existence.
Nursing is a vocation, a job taken up by people who devote their lives to looking after others.
It has always been appallingly underpaid, considering the vital role nurses play in caring for the sick and elderly, the highly skilled nature of the work, the grave responsibilities that fall on their shoulders and the huge societal contribution they make by comparison with many more lucrative professions.
Even so, nurses have not walked out for higher wages. Nobody becomes a nurse in order to rake in the big bucks, and they have shown a principled reluctance to do anything that might risk the health of the people in their care.
Far from earning them respect, this fortitude and generosity of spirit has led the government to take them for mugs, forcing their pay down for years and leaving them struggling to cope in understaffed wards.
Confronted on the Andrew Marr show over the scandal of nurses relying on foodbank handouts to survive, Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t miss a beat, sneering that there were “many complex reasons” nurses might go to foodbanks.
As the author David Rosenberg retorted, she must be a genius — having pondered it for hours he could only think of one.
May’s obfuscation is easily explained. The PM knows there are nurses living in poverty.
She doesn’t care — any more than she cares about the millions of other working people who have lost thousands of pounds a year in pay thanks to seven years of government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.
Health Minister Philip Dunne might plead that nurses deserve a pay rise, but it is unaffordable in hard economic times.
But this month’s Sunday Times Rich List surely gave the lie to that threadbare excuse. Britain’s billionaires are rolling in it, with the 1,000 richest people adding 14 per cent to their wealth over the last year — bringing their ill-gotten gains to an eye-watering £658 billion.
If May is re-elected in June, all we can look forward to is more of the same — more and more hard-working people plunged below the poverty line while the fattest fat cats literally pile on the pounds.
Labour’s offer could not be more of a contrast — with John McDonnell’s welcome proposal yesterday of a Robin Hood raid on the City to give our public services the funding they need.
Nurses planning a summer of protest deserve our solidarity and support. But above all, they deserve a Labour government that will pay them their due and relieve the funding crisis engulfing the NHS. We need to make that happen on June 8.