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NHS staff deserve much better

The government’s shoddy treatment of heroic health workers is disgraceful – and trade unionists will be fighting hard to ensure their vital work is fairly rewarded, says HELEN O’CONNOR

NHS workers have been failed at all levels since the outset of this pandemic. 

One year on and NHS staff are still struggling to get the high-quality PPE that will prevent them getting very sick or even dying from this virus. 

The stop-start lockdown strategy has led to NHS staff working around the clock to treat a massive influx of seriously ill patients as they patch up an NHS service that is breaking apart at the seams due to a chronic and persistent recruitment crisis and unprecedented levels of staff sickness.

Back in 2018 a government health committee report revealed that more nurses were leaving the professional register than joining, and this trend is likely to accelerate. 

Nurse vacancy rates in the NHS are high and in London alone these stood at 13 per cent in 2019. 

The NHS recruitment crisis is endemic and a reliance on expensive temporary agency staff has developed over years. 

In fact many nurses have chosen to work for agencies rather than take up permanent roles because the pay rates are better. 

But why should NHS staff have to chose precarious agency work in order to get pay they can live on? 

And the use of agencies is far more expensive for the public purse than the costs associated with paying permanent NHS staff properly. 

The NHS is nothing without those staff who are working on the front line delivering services to patients day in and day out, but in spite of this the vast majority were forgotten in the last public-sector pay announcement. 

This government is preparing for a massive ramping up of its privatisation programme. 

What better way to do that than to demoralise NHS staff as part of a strategy of painting the NHS as not fit for purpose in order to turn our most precious asset over to private companies who will run it in the interests of their own personal profit.

NHS staff have consistently delivered for the country during this pandemic while the private companies who have received billions in public cash have failed us. 

Serco was eagerly bankrolled by this government to set up the failing test, track and trace system, yet there is no money in the pot for our hardworking NHS staff to have a timely pay rise? 

Bills are rising in April but the stark reality facing NHS staff is that their pay will remain stagnant and this will cause many more to slip below the breadline and leave the NHS for better-paid work. 

Throughout this pandemic NHS staff are being mentally and physically broken by the disgraceful and neglectful way they have been treated by those who understand nothing about the gruelling conditions they have endured over the past year. 

Matt Hancock has made much of the fact that the NHS is rolling out a health and wellbeing programme, which is to be welcomed, but my own experiences as an ex-NHS nurse and trade union organiser tells me that NHS staff are sick and tired of being treated with contempt by the government and by managers who persistently fail to reflect their outstanding contribution to the NHS in their pay, terms and conditions of service. 

Any mental wellbeing programme that attempts to gloss over the real material difficulties faced by NHS staff or that attempts to transfer the responsibility for the deep systemic NHS crisis onto individuals is likely to cause further waves of anger.

Nurses and NHS workers have participated in national strike action before because their pay and pensions have plummeted. 

As an NHS trade union we know it is possible to build and prepare for a co-ordinated national strike ballot in the NHS.

On March 30 GMB union will be having an NHS activists’ online event to prepare for the battles that lie ahead. 

As a union committed to organising NHS staff in their wards and community team bases, we have won many local NHS victories, including recently securing free parking for all staff at Epsom and St Helier NHS. 

GMB was the first health union in the country to support the demand for a 15 per cent pay rise for all NHS staff and new layers of committed trade union activists have joined our ranks as a result. 

With support from across the labour movement, NHS trade unionists will push to enhance pay, terms and conditions for NHS staff in the full knowledge that there can be no NHS for any of us without their vital work.

Helen O’Connor is Southern Region organiser for the GMB.

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