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Among the many new things we have seen in 2020 is the emergence of grassroots groups campaigning on issues like nurse pay and improved personal protective equipment.
This phenomenon has been very much characterised by nurses taking matters into their own hands, organising movements over social media and holding protests backed by marketing nous.
For example, members of Nurses United had held a protest outside Downing Street on 12 May, to coincide with International Nurses’ Day, to demand pay increases.
The pay protest was followed by another in June that also included calls for better PPE and the release of the “full results” of a review into the disparities in risks and outcomes of Covid-19 – now published.
Relatively few people took part in these first protests but their reach was great, through clever use of social media and ensuring traditional media, like Nursing Times, were kept in the loop.
Then, last Saturday, an estimated 20,000 people took part in a national day of action organised by another new grassroots campaign group, NHS Workers Say No, in partnership with Nurses United.
Nurses and other Agenda for Change staff wearing facemasks and carrying homemade placards took to the streets in more than 30 locations around the UK to demand a pay rise.
The rallies were made even more distinctive – and therefore attractive to newspaper picture desks – by the release of blue smoke and participants wearing blue.
To give an idea of the speed with which these campaigns are developing, in less than a month, the NHS Workers Say No group’s Facebook page has gained more than 79,000 members.
“There is naturally already a level of rivalry between the health unions”
Unions – traditionally the organisers of protests – have indicated support but it’s hard not to imagine there being some disquiet at their head offices at the sudden emergence of the new groups on their turf.
Although they often work very closely and effectively together, there is naturally already a level of rivalry between the health unions, especially for members and support and influence in general.
The Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives, Unison, Unite and others, have been the main players on the scene for decades, working very hard while not always receiving recognition.
But with established power often comes baggage. For example, the complex process, and hotly debated issue, of strike action being taken by health professionals.
While the recent protests are nowhere near the level of a strike, their grassroots nature and feeling of being a growing movement has certainly grabbed the public’s attention and, hopefully, that of politicians.
We will see what happens next. For reasons that make no sense to me, ministers seem obsessed with sticking to a pay talk timetable of March 2021, despite the recent efforts of staff and public support.
The more pressure that can be exerted on the government to get on with negotiating a new pay deal for Agenda for Change staff the better. The ultimate winner will be nurses and other NHS staff.