Caroline Lucas: The government’s attacks on the rights of nurses must be resisted

'The equal pay act was over half a century ago. Yet the Chancellor thinks he can get away with underpaying a predominantly female workforce'

Nurses strike

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion.

One constituent recently emailed me to discuss their experience at our local A&E department: “Having observed for hours the work of the staff I am in complete admiration of how they all coped in such awful conditions….I just wonder how Mr Barclay and Mr Sunak would cope if they had to work at 3am in a corridor blocked with numerous patients all needing care. Presumably they would not accept such appalling working conditions.”

This, for me, epitomises the state of the NHS in the UK right now. It has been understaffed, underpaid and undervalued by 13 years of Tory misrule. As the Royal College of Nursing’s annual conference takes place this week in my Brighton constituency, I’m speaking out in support of our nurses – and I’m shocked that this Government won’t. From chronic staff shortages, to utterly inadequate pay, to a rapid retraction of rights – nurses deserve better.

Firstly, on staff shortages – the crisis facing the industry is stark. Just a quarter of shifts have the planned number of registered nurses. 83% of nurses recently reported to the RCN that there weren’t enough nursing staff to meet all patients’ needs safely and effectively on their last shift.

So where is the Government plan to address it? We’re still awaiting the publication of the NHS England workforce plan, months after it was promised. We still lack independently verifiable assessments of the health and care workforce requirements. And whilst the Government has gone some way to reversing the unimaginably stupid scrapping of the nursing bursary, it’s a drop in the ocean given the scale of the workforce crisis. Free tuition for all nursing and midwifery students won’t solve the problem overnight, but it’s a crucial place to start.

Then there’s the elephant in the hospital corridor – Brexit. The number of EU and EFTA nurses in the UK decreased by 28% in the five years to 2021; and the UK has 58,000 fewer nurses than if it had sustained the numbers arriving pre-Brexit. When there are 43,000 nursing vacancies, Brexit has clearly contributed to the sector’s deep and dangerous workforce crisis. Yet Ministers have their fingers in their ears any time someone dares to say so – and it’s the public who rely on the NHS, and the patients for whom nurses care so diligently, who will suffer as a result.

Secondly, on pay and conditions – an experienced nurse’s salary has fallen 20% in real terms since 2010. That equates to effectively working one day a week unpaid. Meanwhile, over 80 nurses a week are quitting the NHS because of stress – four times higher than a decade ago. This situation simply isn’t sustainable.

The equal pay act was over half a century ago. Yet the Chancellor thinks he can get away with underpaying a predominantly female workforce, despite their work being highly skilled. Low pay isn’t just disrespectful, it’s sexist. So, when he chooses to blame the global economic crisis for his clear political choice not to pay nurses properly, or to merrily perpetuate the myth of the “wage price spiral”, he needs to be challenged head on.

Ensuring essential public services function, that nurses can pay their bills, that the wider population can access the health care they need, is good for the economy. Fair pay won’t push up the costs of goods for everyone else and the Chancellor knows it.

The fact remains that nursing staff, who are the largest part of the NHS workforce, remain in dispute with the Government over unfair pay and unsafe staffing. It’s nurses’ hard-won and precious right to hold out for a fair deal, and it should be sacrosanct. Yet this Government is colluding to silence their voices.

Which brings me to my third point – that nurses and other workers’ rights are being stifled. Take the Government’s reactionary Anti-Strike Bill currently going through Parliament, which if passed would allow nursing staff to be sacked for taking otherwise lawful strike action – the same nursing staff who Ministers clapped during Covid. Or the brand new Public Order Act that could see you arrested for daring to carry a pro-nurse placard. Or fresh Voter ID legislation making it even harder to cast your vote. Put simply – our fundamental rights are being eroded. And we all know what they’ll come for next – the right to publicly owned and funded health care, free at the point of use, our great British institution for three quarters of a century.

By staying strong over the past 12 months, in the face of an onslaught of attacks from this Government, nurses have bravely stood up for an institution which our country deeply values. A sustainable, public NHS for future generations is at stake in this battle – and it’s a battle which we cannot afford to lose.

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