13 Oct 2014

‘We’ve been carrying the NHS and now this’

It was – by mid-afternoon – being declared a victory.  Health unions across England and Northern Ireland said  “hundreds of thousands” had staged their first strike over pay in 30 years. In the case of midwives, it was their first strike action in their 133-year history.

And certainly, the support looked solid on picket lines across the country, despite wet and cold conditions in many places.

The strike is over the government’s refusal to accept the 1 per cent pay rise recommendation from the independent pay review board but it was quite clear, speaking to people on the picket lines, that it is not just about pay.

There was a palpable sense of frustration and grievance over three years without increases of pay while at the same time dealing with the extra pressures the NHS has been facing and continues to face.

One midwife said they had been “carrying” the NHS, working “above and beyond” their duties to keep it functioning.  “And now this,” she said.


The pay award means that any staff receiving incremental pay rises – given as they move up in their careers – will not be given the 1 per cent.  That is 60 per cent of NHS staff overall and 70 per cent of nurses.

The remainder, who are at the top of their band and who are therefore not in line for an incremental rise, will get the 1 per cent.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the NHS could not afford both the incremental rises and the 1 per cent.  He said it would cost £450m and that he had had clear advice that if they had to give the pay rise, trusts would lay off 4,000 nurses next years and 10,000 the year after.

When you drill down into these figures, the advice was actually that £450m is the equivalent of 14,000 newly-qualified nurses.  That is not the same thing as trusts laying off that number of nurses.

Indeed, post the Francis review, it would be a brave trust which let its nursing levels fall and it flies in the face of the frantic recruiting currently underway.

And yet it is the case that the NHS is facing its worst financial crisis in a decade and that any extra demands would require finding savings from elsewhere.  Many managers are saying those “elsewheres” do not exist.

Another interesting issue this strike has raised is over the balloting rules.  The Conservatives have pointed out that the turn out was less than 50 per cent.  In the case of Unison, it was actually 14 per cent.

So they are able to say that there was not universal support for taking strike action.  Unison’s Dave Prentice visibly sighs when this is put to him.

He says that they are hampered by rules brought in under Margaret Thatcher which prevent them from balloting in the work place, which require them to use postal votes and to send them to home addresses.  All of which means many go missing or are ignored.

The military and police were drafted in by London ambulance, which the unions said was provocative.  An agreement had been reached beforehand that any life and limb cases would be responded to and that, if necessary, strikers would leave the picket lines.

That was what we found at the Whittington hospital maternity unit in north London.  Antenatal and postnatal checkups were affected but they had ensured cover was available for any woman going into labour.

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