NHS nurses are effectively working for free, a new study finds

‘Ministers who once seemed glad to applaud NHS staff should reflect on this terrible state of affairs.’

UK was not fully prepared for the Covid pandemic

Nurses’ real-term wages have fallen so low, they are essentially working for free. This was the shocking finding of a new study by London Economics.

The comprehensive analysis of pay awards shows that between 2010/11 and 2023/24, a typical, experienced nurse had their pay cut in real terms by 25 percent. The cuts have been so severe since the Tories came into power that hundreds of thousands of nurses are effectively working five days a month for free.  In England, 248,500 (74 percent) of the NHS’s 336,900 nurses are in pay bands 5 and 6, earning between £28k and £42k each year.

A 5 percent NHS pay rise last year was rejected in a ballot by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) but the government imposed the below-inflation award for the 2023/24 financial year anyway.

The London Economic figures come alongside damning findings from a cost-of-living survey of almost 11,000 nursing staff. The survey shows more than half – 52 percent – of nursing staff say they are likely or very likely to quit nursing in the next five years due to low pay and cost of living pressures. Over two thirds – 68 percent – admitted to rationing gas and electricity last winter.

Professor Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary and chief executive, said that analysis exposes the scale of the “government’s sustained attack on nursing.”

“Over a decade of below inflation pay offers, followed last year by the lowest award in the entire public sector, have caused hardship and forced thousands to consider quitting altogether. 

“Today, nursing staff are rationing electricity and gas with financial pressures pushing four in ten into a state of mental distress. Pay has been devalued so much that they are effectively working 5 days or more for free each month. Ministers who once seemed glad to applaud NHS staff should reflect on this terrible state of affairs.”

Cullen warns that when nursing pay is deliberately undermined in this way, so too is patient care.

“There are tens of thousands of nurse vacancies across England’s NHS and yet our most experienced nurses are being forced out of the profession – just when the health service needs them most.”

In a formal submission to the NHS Pay Review Body for 2024/25, the union called for a sizeable lump sum on top of a substantial above inflation pay rise.

“Ministers must commit to a substantial pay rise for every member of nursing staff. That’s how to begin delivering pay justice for a profession so routinely undervalued. If they fall short once again, they will be exposing tens of thousands to further hardship and exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis,” the RCN general secretary added.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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