Gill Hale: NHS staff have been driven to strike but shouldn't be made to feel bad about it

Unison's North East regional secretary on Monday's NHS strike and how it is a result of deep anger at how they are being treated

Pickets at James Cook University Hospital as part of a national strike by NHS workers
Pickets at James Cook University Hospital as part of a national strike by NHS workers

You will be aware that on Monday, NHS staff for the first time in 32 years, took strike action in support of their pay.

Nurses, paramedics, therapists, healthcare assistants and the rest of the NHS team are used to putting patients first, so going on strike is not a decision these workers take lightly.

Earlier this year, a UNISON survey showed a health service under severe strain.

65% of staff said that they did not have enough time to spend with patients.

This is despite the fact that 50% worked through their breaks or beyond their shift saving the NHS over a billion pounds in unpaid overtime each year.

It is against this background of fewer staff coping with more patients, coupled with the Government’s decision to deny 60% of NHS workers a pay rise that many staff are saying enough is enough – no wonder when they know that the Government has spent a massive £1.5bn on a totally unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS in England and 10,000 jobs have been lost.

Despite Government claims to the contrary, NHS funding is not keeping pace with demand and it is totally unacceptable to expect staff to plug the funding gap.

More than a third of NHS non-medical staff are paid less than £21,000. And the fact that staff have either had a pay freeze or just 1% since 2010 is bad enough, but to add insult to injury the Coalition Government has swept aside the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendation to award 1% to all staff.

The PRB has kept the industrial peace in the NHS over many years and to go against its recommendation is a slap in the face to staff.

After all, many people would agree that a 1% increase is a pretty derisory amount for NHS staff who give so much, yet get so little in return.

A straight 1% increase is nowhere near enough to meet the massive cost-of-living increases that NHS staff have had to cope with since 2010. Staff are, on average, 10% worse off than when the Coalition government came to power.

As I have been meeting health members across the region, I have been struck by how angry they feel at how they are being treated. I have spoken to health staff who have told me that they never imagined that they would go on strike, but after 30 odd years of service to the NHS and its patients they feel that there is no other choice.

There is not one of us who at sometime has not been grateful for the NHS and its staff. They deserve better treatment than this. They deserve to be valued for the work that they do.

It seems that NHS staff are valuable photo opportunities for Cameron and his cronies who are happy to be seen smiling next to nurses, but when it comes to valuing the work of NHS staff, the government hides away.

Looking after patients is why health workers are in the NHS, so scare stories about nurses walking off the job and leaving patients are just that – scare stories.

UNISON always works with managers to discuss cover before any action goes ahead.

Professional codes of conduct for nurses, occupational therapists, paramedics, physiotherapists, radiographers and other registered staff do not preclude industrial action.

Staff have a fundamental, democratic right to take strike action – they shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it.

Finally, the Government could put an end to this dispute right now. The cost of implementing the pay review body’s recommendation would be £150m. It’s a small amount compared to the total NHS budget.

This Government is denying nurses and NHS staff a decent rise and is the same Government that gave away £750m undervaluing Royal Mail. What’s fair about that?

  • Gill Hale is North East regional secretary of UNISON

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