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Earlier this month, Nursing Times published an article by Nottingham University’s Frances Cadd describing a moment in nursing history, namely the Masked March, which took place in 1938.
The protest, unprecedented for the time, saw a group of nurses wearing masks to hide their identity take to London’s streets to raise awareness of poor working conditions, staffing shortages and more.
“While the Masked March was not directly about pay, it reminded me of the striking images from protests held around the country this year”
Like the 1930s protestors, nursing staff of today are of course faced with severe staffing shortages and are in many cases feeling exhausted as a result of tackling the first wave of Covid-19 crisis.
And while the Masked March was not directly about pay, it reminded me of the striking images from protests held around the country this year by nurses wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
As well as the new pressure groups, like Nurses United, leading unions, including Unison and the Royal College of Midwives, have called for ministers to boost nurse pay without delay.
To quickly recap, under current plans, NHS staff on the Agenda for Change contract are not due a pay rise until April 2021, when the current three-year deal comes to an end.
But unions have joined forces with the aim of securing an earlier pay rise. Although each is asking for something slightly different, they all agree extra money should be in pockets before the end of 2020.
Who surely, could argue against that? Nursing staff were at the forefront of tackling the challenge of Covid-19, often with limited PPE staff shortages exacerbated by colleagues having to shield or isolated, off sick with the virus. And a shocking number lost their lives to Covid-19 or still experience enduring symptoms.
Nurses have now steeled themselves to deal with the second wave, while also continuing to provide critical routine services; those working in primary care face a massive vaccination programme.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, however, still appears to be unmoved. Over recent months, he has consistently ruled out promising any improvement in pay until after negotiations next year.
Earlier this week, he was still sticking to that position. During a Downing Street press conference, he was asked by The Independent newspaper if he would promise a “meaningful” above-inflation pay rise, to bolster morale, boost recruitment and help keep patients safe.
The reply was, once again, that the government was sticking to the timetable of the independent pay review process.
That was before today’s revelations that ministers had torn up spending rules and burned billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money while panicking to find sufficient PPE.
The National Audit Office found the government had awarded contracts worth £18bn in what were sometimes somewhat shady looking deals.
For example, companies were 10 times more likely to win PPE contracts if they were recommended by ministers, their officials, MPs or members of the House of Lords thanks to a “high priority” channel that favoured those with political contacts.
Some of those awarded deals had made the news before the NAO report: a pest control company worth £19,000 received £350m to provide PPE, while a loss-making firm run by a Conservative councillor received £156m to import PPE from China.
The NAO’s findings confirm that the government believes it is fine to shell out vast sums of money for deals – often awarded without competitive tendering and with inadequate documentation – while taking a miserly position when it comes to staff pay, does not sit well with me.
Nurses could be forgiven for thinking a magic money tree bears fruit for friends of the government, while the people putting themselves at risk on the front line are batted away.
I know it’s a bit of a cliché but the government should do itself and the nation a favour by giving nurses the Christmas present they so richly deserve in the form of an early pay rise.