NHS pay award: having to wrangle over a fair deal is the last thing nurses need now

Nurse recruitment and retention is among the most pressing issues facing the health service and announcing a pay award of 3% is no way to address it

NHS nursing staff hold RCN banners as they set out on fair pay march to Whitehall in July 2021l
NHS staff march on Whitehall on 3 July as part of a national day of action over pay and funding Picture: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

There were many words used by ministers around the 3% pay award announcement for NHS staff in England and Wales that should have stuck in their throats.

England health and social care minister Helen Whately saying ‘we will give health staff what they need’ was among the lines that were certainly hard for nurses to swallow.

This was not least because it emerged her statement to parliament, widely tipped beforehand to be about NHS pay, was nothing of the kind. A pay announcement would come hours later and only after a furious reaction from health unions that had been expecting the long-awaited news before MPs’ long summer recess.

Nurses deserve recognition of their safety-critical roles

What nurses and NHS staff in general don’t need are platitudes about how great they are – many of them feel anything but, after 16 gruelling months and counting. What they do need – and deserve – is recognition of their worth as highly-trained professionals fulfilling complex, safety-critical roles.

And the last thing nurses, their unions – and the public – need right now is for NHS staff to be forced down the path of industrial action as a result of having nowhere left to turn.

Industrial action, an option of last resort

RCN trade union committee chair Graham Revie has said the college will exhaust all avenues before giving industrial action any consideration. The college will hold a ‘consultative ballot’ in the next month to gauge members’ views on whether they feel the much-delayed offer, which is in line with recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body (RB), is acceptable or not.

In Scotland, while RCN and GMB members rejected the Holyrood government’s 4% pay offer, Unison members accepted it. What happens in England and Wales remains to be seen. Meanwhile, nursing staff in Northern Ireland – where the RCN staged its first ever strike over pay in 2019 – are still waiting to hear what ministers there propose.

The government is also facing unrest from another significant group: junior, specialty and associate specialist doctors’. Junior doctors took industrial action in 2016 over their contract and pay for unsocial hours.

The RB’s 2021-22 pay round report refers to ‘retention’ 86 times. The link between this and pay has been made in numerous surveys and reports. The government needs to hear this and follow through with action that proves it values nurses.

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