UNISON’s health members in England are in the middle of action, fighting for fair pay.
Much of the focus so far has been on politicans and NHS staff, but what of the people who use the NHS – the patients? What do they think?
We asked some people who are currently, or who have recently, used the NHS about their experiences and what they think about staff they rely on taking industrial action.
Andy Harris, Buckinghamshire
My son George was born in Stoke Mandeville Hospital in April 2012. He was diagnosed with meningitis within hours and for the first week of his life he was in the neo-natal intensive care unit. The care from everyone was exceptional.
We feel we owe them his life and his ongoing health.
Actually, everything about his birth was difficult. My wife Jo had a group B streptococcus infection, so she had to have antibiotics during labour, then needed a emergency caesarean.
The midwife kept us calm throughout the birth, because she had done it so many times before and knew what we were going through.
It’s the little things you remember. We brought music with us, to relax Jo, but had forgotten to put it on. It was the midwife who said ‘Why not play it?’.
Then she started singing along to one of the songs. That was her attitude: this is ordinary, everyday, we’re going to get through this. She was so relaxed, and you only get that through experience.
But George was very poorly from the moment he was born. Meningitis can be fatal, and at the very least can cause permanent damage to hearing and vision.
To see him listless, not moving, hooked up to all the drips and things was a scary experience.
For the staff, it was all about getting him stable: giving him antibiotics, keeping his temperature down. They succeeded, and because of them we have a perfectly healthy little boy.
We’re so thankful.
Our nurses were wonderful, so supportive, always making sure we were told what was going on. The paediatric doctor had a really good manner, and was excellent.
The exceptional thing about the NHS is the staff – the care they give you, the knowledge they have, the way they identify with you as people. I just think that the NHS lends itself to the sort of people who are good at giving that kind of care.
But there are a number of funding issues for the NHS and pay is one of the most important ones. So I absolutely support the pay campaign.
The way I see it, if you work in the private sector and you don’t like your pay, you look for another job with better pay.
That’s not an option for people working in the NHS. People don’t go into the public sector for the money, but because of their passion and love for the job. To then shortchange them is just unfair.
Retired patient from Warwickshire, 69 years old
I have just had a complete knee replacement. It was my left knee, which I was told was riddled with arthritis.
It’s a very big operation. It can be pretty painful. But my experience to date has been really pretty good.
First, I was very surprised by how quickly they got me in for the operation – within a matter of weeks. I was in hospital for four days.
You are put completely in the picture before the operation, so that you know what to expect. And afterwards there was a clear empathy and desire to make one as comfortable and relaxed as possible. All the staff were very good. The doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, I could not fault anyone.
The day after I was discharged someone from what they call their ‘swat team’ came to my home to ensure I had the facilities I needed, especially for getting around the house, and to make sure that everything was OK.
I am currently going back to the hospital every Friday for physiotherapy. It’s quite intensive. The physiotherapists are very committed, very thorough. It’s quite funny – maybe because of our ages, while they’re making us perform the physical jerks they play music from the ’50s and ’60s.
I’m a firm believer in the NHS, I believe in it passionately, but I don’t see it through rose-tinted glasses.
Some areas of the service are over-managed. And of course I don’t agree with the privatisation.
UNISON and the other health unions have a vitally important role in this country and particularly in the NHS I think. It’s important to ensure they can participate in the day-to-day activities of the health service, because they have the right ethos.
Anne McCormack, UNISON retired member and former further education chair. Merseyside, 64-years-old
In August 2010 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was originally picked up in a routine mammogram, for women over 50, which I had in a Portakabin in Tesco car park.
That was such a great idea – you do your shopping then have a check-up. It was an extra level of encouragement, because you see it every day. But that Portakabin has since been closed, because they had no money to keep it going.
A week later I had a letter saying I had to go to the hospital for another test. I had a biopsy straight away. A week after that it was confirmed as malignant. And two or three weeks after that I had a lumpectomy. Then a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy – all done and dusted.
The speed of my treatment was down to the resources ploughed into the NHS by the Labour government. If I had not been diagnosed and treated that quickly it could have been much worse. I might have had to have a mastectomy, or even died.
No-one takes privatisation of the NHS seriously. But if I had had to pay for that treatment it would have cost me a fortune. The cleaners, the porters, the radiographers, the nurses – they are all trained. I had one of the best surgeons in the country. Money can’t buy that kind of treatment.
My cousin leaves in New Jersey, in the States. She’s the same age as me, and had the same problem. But she had to go back to work, from retirement, because her insurance had run out and she couldn’t afford to pay for her drugs – drugs that I get for free. So she had to get a job at 64.
It worries me terribly that his could happen in the NHS, and people no longer get these treatments automatically.
The pay strike is not a sudden thing.
The day I checked in, the ward clerks were all having to reapply for their own jobs on less pay. That was in 2010.
They and their colleagues have suffered and struggled through pay cuts and reductions in terms and conditions for four years, putting up with it because they really care about the patients.
Only now are they taking strike action, because they are at the end of their tether.
Ben, 27, London
I have a rare congenital heart condition, which seriously affects the oxygenation of the blood. I had to have a major operation when I was 13 months old. And I still require regular check-ups, including an echo, MRI scan, ECG.
In addition I have arrhythmia problems. Now and then I will have palpitations and need a catheter procedure. I’ve had four of those. And I’ve had about a dozen scares, when I’ve gone in just to be safe.
I’ve been going to the same hospital my entire life, the Royal Brompton.
It’s a specialist heart hospital, a teaching hospital and one of the best of its kind in the world. And everyone there, not just the doctors but the nurses and the support staff have always been absolutely fantastic.
It’s important with cardiac patients to calm them and make them feel supported. And whenever I’ve been to the Brompton that’s what I’ve experienced.
I know I’m in good hands. It’s difficult to describe – when I was younger I always felt safe as soon as I went through the hospital doors. It was like crossing the finish line, and knowing then that things would be alright.
If I had been born in another country, where there was no provision of free medical services, either my family would be bankrupt or I would be dead. Possibly both. If I had been born in the US, that would have been it.
Excluding the fact that without the Brompton I would be dead, I don’t think I would have the same quality of life without the treatment I’ve been given. To know they are there when I need them is crucial.
In the main part of the hospital there are two plastic trees fixed to the wall, with plastic discs hanging from them. Each one represents a donation from a patient. It’s very moving, and demonstrates the excellence of the hospital.
If you don’t pay people a decent wage for what they are doing, they are not going to be as motivated. It’s as simple as that.
And if people are having to work two jobs to support themselves and their families, in a vital public service like the NHS, that’s worrying and dangerous, because they will have their focus divided.
It’s also morally wrong. I don’t think anyone should be paid less than the living wage. It’s particularly important that we recognise the contribution that these people make to society, to individual lives.
There are many people in the country who are paid vastly more than NHS staff – like bankers or marketing people – whose work has very little benefit to society.