UK nurses’ vote to strike is ‘about saving the NHS’, supporters say

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LONDON – Leena Myllynen so often struggled to pay her rent and other bills while working as a nurse in a British hospital that she considered giving up the profession altogether.

Between a pandemic that left hospitals understaffed and record inflation that reduced the value of her salary, “I was completely exhausted and just demoralized,” she told The Washington Post. “I was never able to make it to payday even when I worked extra hours,” said the 32-year-old nurse.

That’s why she left the UK’s taxpayer-funded National Health Service – a cherished British institution and one of the world’s largest employers. It’s also why, she says, many nurses across Britain voted this month for the first time in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the country’s largest nursing union. The strike is expected before the end of the year.

The pandemic that overwhelmed medical services worldwide has not spared the NHS, which has a backlog of millions of patients awaiting treatment for a wide range of illnesses. And the unprecedented pressure for funding in the post-pandemic NHS has even affected access to healthcare for some medical workers.

When Myllynen’s partner, an NHS doctor, developed severe pneumonia and blood clotting, they went from one emergency room to another looking for a hospital bed, she said. “He ended up sleeping on the floor [of an emergency room] before 12 o’clock because of the lack of beds, she recalled.

“The staff shortages resulting from the poor wages and working conditions affect us all,” Myllynen added. “We are patients too.”

Britain is experiencing its highest inflation rate in 41 years, straining funding for the healthcare system. Predictions of a long recession and rising energy prices have led to warnings that people could experience “the biggest drop in household income in generations,” said Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The nursing union, which has hundreds of thousands of members, says the wage problem has exacerbated staff shortages and endangered patient safety. Since 2010, an experienced nurse’s earnings have fallen by at least 20 per cent in real terms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, according to research commissioned by the RCN.

Although British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described nurses’ demand for a pay rise of nearly 17 percent – ​​5 percent above inflation as “priceless”, he said talks this week between the health minister and union leaders would help those involved “see how we can fix this”. Health officials are hoping for a deal to stave off a wave of strikes this winter.

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UK government officials say a wage offer made in July, with an average increase of 4.75 per cent for nurses in England next year, was in line with recommendations from an independent NHS pay review body.

The plan would increase the average base salary for nurses from about $42,000 as of March 2022 to nearly $44,000, according to the government, which argues that larger increases would exacerbate inflation and increase the country’s debt.

But as a cost-of-living crisis affects everyone, paramedics, paramedics and cleaners also vote to join the nurses in a strike.

Leanne Patrick, a nurse specialist in gender-based violence for the NHS in Scotland, said she voted for the nurses’ strike not for herself, but for the challenges she sees in the largely female profession. The mother-of-two said nurses were not paid fairly for their skills or for the level of risk they manage, and she said she hoped the strike would raise their voices.

The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis led health facilities to “bleed staff” after years of below-inflation pay rises and brought about “kind of a tipping point,” Patrick told The Post.

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She said many nurses supported the strike because “we know it affects not only us, but other nurses, and ultimately patient care.”

When nurses are understaffed and unable to “provide safe care,” says Patrick, nurses realize that “they go home and worry about patients at the end of the day.”

And if nurses also feel undervalued, she added, “isn’t it surprising to think that after all this grief, they’re thinking, “Could I do something much less stressful… for a similar amount of money?”

Since leaving the NHS last year, Myllynen, who works in the northern English city of Leeds, has moved on to a job as a private sector nurse with a charity, so she did not take part in the RCN vote. But she said she supports the decision, which she described as “the last option,” and hopes it will help find a solution a problem she says has been building for years.

“This strike is not selfish; it’s about saving the NHS,” she said. “…it is about our own health care in the future.”

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