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Editorial A pay rise for NHS staff is essential – and it matters to us all

NURSES are being provoked into threatening industrial action to secure the pay rise they clearly deserve.

The Tories’ paltry 1 per cent offer is a below-inflation insult following a year in which NHS staff have put their lives on the line in the war against Covid-19.

The Conservative Party and its media cheerleaders are past masters at divide and rule. They play this game even when they cloak it in the language of unity. 

Ministers plead that the country cannot afford more than a 1 per cent increase. 

A party that has just picked the pockets of the poorest by freezing income tax thresholds (in effect, an income tax rise for the lowest earners) brags that it wants the broadest shoulders to bear the heaviest burden — citing a hypothetical corporation tax rise two years into the future as evidence.

“We’re sorry if you’re losing out, but look, we’re sharing the pain” — except they aren’t.

With similar dishonesty it will seek to divide other public-sector workers from those in the NHS — “times are hard and you’re getting nothing, but look — the nurses have been offered a raise and are ungrateful.”

Ministers who called on the nation to clap for the NHS last year will not have any scruples about demonising its workforce now it is preparing to fight for better pay. 

At key moments during this pandemic — whenever the question of whether children can safely return to the classroom becomes acute, as indeed it is now — the Establishment media have trained their guns on teachers with total cynicism. 

Calls for socially distanced classrooms, phased returns to assess the impact on infection levels, priority vaccination, detailed proposals on how to manage a safe return to schools — none have been reflected in attack pieces in the Sun, Telegraph or Mail denouncing union militants supposedly set on ruining our kids’ educations. 

NHS staff will be in for the exact same treatment. They will be accused of endangering patients with reckless action in support of pay demands the country can’t afford.

But the reality is we can’t afford not to raise pay in the NHS.

The pressure placed on health workers over the last year has been horrific — and that after years of underfunding had already created a “permanent winter crisis.” 

There were 100,000 NHS vacancies at the start of the pandemic. Overstretched staff have been forced to plug the gaps, gaps that have become wider as NHS workers are exposed to infection and forced to isolate. Things are set to get worse, with a third of nurses considering leaving the profession within a year.

A resource-starved NHS is not just a danger to its staff but to its patients. Nurse and GMB member Holly Turner is right to argue that “long term, if we’re going to keep our patients safe, if we need to take industrial action in order to do that — I think we will.” 

As for affordability, as John Rees of the People’s Assembly points out, the £37 billion handed to private-sector chancers to build a useless test-and-trace system is equivalent to a bonus of over £120,000 for every nurse in the country. The government denying nurses a pay rise is happy to splash the cash on its friends.

That contrast is absolutely key to exposing the government’s hypocrisy. To building a mass movement to fight the injustice of making ordinary workers pay for the pandemic. What the country “can afford” depends on how its resources are distributed — and that can be changed.

The case for a nurses’ pay rise may stand out as we battle through a public health crisis, but a campaign for NHS pay can be the spearhead for a wider struggle for the better deal Britain’s working people deserve. 

A nurses’ victory could pay dividends for underpaid workers in every sector. This is a time for militancy.

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