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Why is a fair pay rise for nurses not seen as a critical expense?

The 1% pay offer devalues nurses – at a time when COVID-19 has proved their importance more than ever

The 1% pay offer devalues nurses at a time when COVID-19 has proved their importance more than ever

The Westminster governments 1% pay offer for NHS staff has been met with outrage and disbelief.

As a workforce researcher, I would say the issue is not just about the financial aspects of pay its about the message it sends to nurses and the public about the extent to which NHS staff are valued.

Pandemic has exposed the danger of nurse shortages

The problem with the 1% pay rise suggested by the government needs to be understood in context.

We are not awash with nurses. In fact, before we entered the COVID-19 pandemic, the

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The 1% pay offer devalues nurses – at a time when COVID-19 has proved their importance more than ever

Picture: Daniel Mitchell

The Westminster government’s 1% pay offer for NHS staff has been met with outrage and disbelief.

As a workforce researcher, I would say the issue is not just about the financial aspects of pay – it’s about the message it sends to nurses and the public about the extent to which NHS staff are valued.

Pandemic has exposed the danger of nurse shortages

The problem with the 1% pay rise suggested by the government needs to be understood in context.

We are not awash with nurses. In fact, before we entered the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS in England had around 40,000 registered nurse vacancies.

We’ve been carrying a deficit of nurses for some years, but the pandemic has exposed the criticality of that shortage.

Supply has not kept pace with demand – something the UK government tried to address in 2019 by setting a target to increase the number of registered nurses in the NHS by 50,000 by 2024-25.

But as a Health Foundation report published in December 2019 points out, achieving this goal relies heavily on improving the retention of existing staff.

Nurses experience illness due to work pressures and stress

Typically, around 33,000 nurses – 10% – leave the NHS each year. The most recent Nursing and Midwifery Council survey of those leaving the register showed that, after retirement, the second biggest factor causing nurses to leave the profession early is ‘too much pressure’.

We know that the level of pressure NHS staff have been under these past 12 months has been huge, and this has had a direct effect on nurses; in the latest NHS England staff survey, almost half (49%) of the nurses who responded said they had experienced work-related illness.

Problems with economy are not stopping nurse exodus

The precariousness of the economy and wider labour market might explain why most staff groups in the NHS are less likely to be thinking of leaving: public sector employment can offer security at times of economic crisis.

But worryingly, this pattern is not the case for nurses, who are just as likely to be considering leaving the NHS this year as last, and more of whom are considering retiring or leaving the healthcare sector entirely, according to the NHS staff survey.

The government is sending a ‘terrible message’ to beleaguered nurses

Having enough staff to deliver care well, and feeling valued, are absolutely central to job satisfaction in nursing, and we know these factors affect nurses’ decisions to stay or go.

A pay offer that is widely described by the public and media as being ‘an insult’ sends a terrible message to a workforce whom we desperately need to retain.

And it comes at a time when nurses’ satisfaction with their salaries was already low and falling, from 36% in the previous NHS England staff survey, down to 33% in the most recent survey.

Why are nurses missing out on government spending?

With other aspects of our response to COVID-19, we have justified massive expenditure based on how critically important those things are. And yet somehow the workers who have been delivering NHS care, and have been under extraordinary pressure, are not viewed with the same degree of criticality.

It will be interesting to see how the Scottish Government’s offer of a 4% pay rise will impact on the NHS Pay Review Body recommendations or the Westminster government’s final response.

The fact remains no part of the UK can afford to lose more nurses right now. Each nurse that leaves is expensive to replace, and covering vacancies and rota gaps with bank and agency staff is costly. The worry is that nurses don’t feel valued at a time when we need staff in the NHS to feel valued more than ever.

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