UNISON is now into the second full week of our NHS pay strike ballot in England, Cymru Wales and Northern Ireland. We’re still pressing ahead with encouraging as many members as possible to vote and return their ballot papers.
The £1,400 pay award for NHS England and Cymru Wales is a real-terms pay cut for the majority of staff, and staff in Northern Ireland have been given no pay rise at all because of the political paralysis in Stormont.
Our activists and organisers have been speaking to thousands of members, every day since the ballot opened.
Meanwhile, I’ve been out visiting UNISON branches at hospital sites, ambulance stations and control rooms, to help them get the message out to their members.
Ambulance workers in London told me they’ve never seen wait-times outside hospitals so bad, while a branch secretary in a big hospital trust said they’ve had a 25% increase in the number of members requesting hardship support.
Just today, I spoke to operating department practitioners about the foodbank that’s opened in their hospital to help feed staff.
Is it any surprise that trusts are struggling to recruit? With reports of just one healthcare assistant for 14 patients on a night shift, and experienced staff – some with 30 years of service – despairingly describing an NHS that’s never had such a bad staffing crisis.
One member, who’d already voted ‘yes’ and returned their ballot paper, told me: “I want to tell the government that we’re not being selfish by trying to draw attention to the deep problems in the NHS, we’re doing this to save services and patients”.
My fears that the government was failing to either acknowledge or grasp the severity of the crisis were confirmed last night when I was on Newsnight. I had to correct Tory MP Tobias Ellwood on his NHS staff vacancy stats. He said there are 25,000 vacancies, but he’s wrong – it’s more like 135,000.
That’s the true scale of the recruitment and retention crisis in the NHS. And with government threats of a 2% pay cap next year in the public sector, the crisis is only set to deepen.
There are many things that need to be fixed in health and social care across the UK, but sorting out pay would make a huge improvement.
A real-terms pay cut, handed down after the NHS dealt with a traumatic two years through COVID, is insult after injury. And what I’m hearing from NHS staff is that they’re angry and fed up.
They were being clapped when the government needed them to go out to work every day during the pandemic – before we even knew we would find a vaccine – only to be told, now, that they shouldn’t expect their pay to keep up with the cost of living, and that they would be selfish and reckless to take strike action.
This government let frontline workers take responsibility when times were at their toughest, but now it refuses to take responsibility for the things that are in its control.
It is within the government’s power to give NHS workers the decent pay they deserve.