Editorial

Language barriers leave us all in limbo

We have all been served in shops by staff with limited English, or endured those conversations on the phone with someone we struggle to understand in a call centre. These are bearable when we are ordering a particular type of coffee or sorting out a mobile phone contract, but how would we feel in such circumstances if we were receiving health or social care from someone who barely spoke our language?

We have all been served in shops by staff with limited English, or endured those conversations on the phone with someone we struggle to understand in a call centre. These are bearable when we are ordering a particular type of coffee or sorting out a mobile phone contract, but how would we feel in such circumstances if we were receiving health or social care from someone who barely spoke our language?

The government has taken the view that all public sector workers whose roles involve dealing directly with patients, services users and other customers should have a good standard of English. We asked the Nursing Standard readers panel what they thought about the idea, and a consensus emerged that ministers are correct: as one contributor put it, fluency in the mother tongue is a necessity, not a luxury, especially when dealing with vulnerable patients.

However, as our panellist Edwin Chamanga points out, the debate masks another issue. He asks: ‘The real question for the government is why we are recruiting people who cannot speak English in the first place.’ The answer is, of course, that sourcing and persuading people to take up low paid jobs in the NHS, local authority social care teams or in nursing homes is nigh-on impossible.

Sourcing and persuading people to take up low paid jobs is nigh-on impossible

The government is seeking to address this problem by increasing the minimum wage – or national living wage, as it will be rebranded – to £7.20 an hour next April and to £9 an hour by 2020 for those aged over 25. All well and good, but there is no additional money being set aside to fund this increase. Care home owners have already pointed out that they cannot see how they can afford the hike.

However, as our readers panellists argue, it is in the interests of high-quality, safe patient care to endure that all staff can communicate well orally and in writing. On that, there can be no compromise.

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