This week more than 1,000 health workers are gathering in Brighton for Unison’s annual healthcare conference.
The hall will be full of NHS workers including nurses, occupational therapists, hospital cleaners and cooks as well as midwives, healthcare assistants, medical secretaries, porters and administrative staff from every corner of Britain.
Even before I get there, I know that the mood of the conference will be one of anger and frustration — because I share that feeling.
We have a coalition government that is only too happy to use hospitals and nursing staff for a photo opportunity, but which continually runs down the NHS and talks up the so-called “benefits” of more competition from private health companies.
They may pose side by side with a nurse, but when it comes to giving nurses and health workers a decent pay rise, they’re nowhere to be seen.
What the government has done to the NHS and its staff since coming to power is nothing short of a national scandal.
The three-year pay freeze and cap on wages has seen the value of health workers’ pay fall by between 10 and 14 per cent — figures that represent real hardship for individuals and families across the country.
And to add insult to injury, in March the government ran roughshod over the independent Pay Review Body’s report and handed a 1 per cent non-consolidated pay increase only to those at the top of their incremental scale. At one stroke the government denied 70 per cent of nurses in England a pay rise.
The government clearly hasn’t a clue about the way that increments work. They are not a substitute for the annual pay rise that is needed to meet the increasing cost of living.
They are designed to reflect the growing skills and experience of nurses and other healthcare workers and are by no means automatic. And it exposes the contempt the government has for the NHS and health workers.
That’s why members are angry and that’s why we will be calling for a ballot for industrial action, because enough is enough. It is very rare for NHS staff to contemplate strike action because patients are their number one priority.
But rarely have staff felt so strongly about they way they are being treated and rarely have they had so many reasons to feel that way.
The NHS runs on the goodwill of staff who routinely work over their hours and through breaks to care for patients.
A new survey of nursing staff found that more than half (53 per cent) worked beyond their contracted hours and 58 per cent skipped some or all of their breaks.
That’s because there are not enough staff on the wards to deliver the high standard of care they want to give.
And the reason there are not enough staff is because the government — contrary to what they claim — has effectively cut the NHS budget.
Since the health service began it has needed a 4-5 per cent annual increase in its budget, just to stand still.
But demand for NHS services doesn’t stand still and neither does the cost of more complex medical procedures or drugs.
The money that should have been spent on improving patient care and ensuring fair pay for NHS staff has been squandered by this government on their massive top-down reorganisation of the NHS.
It has cost the NHS and taxpayers £1.5 billion and 10,000 jobs — Andrew Lansley’s vanity project that should never have got started.
Freezing the NHS budget has led to a catalogue of cuts and closures, as well as staff having their pay down-banded or allowances cut.
It has led to hospitals struggling with large debts becoming prey for private health companies like Circle and Care UK.
Unison is proud of the major role it played in the recent successful fight against the franchising of the George Eliot Hospital — but make no mistake, other hospitals are at risk in places like Peterborough and Cambridge. So the fight goes on. We cannot let this government get away with their blatant privatisation plans.
Passions will rightly be running high at the health conference and directing that passion into fighting against this government’s assault on the NHS and on members’ pay and conditions will be Unison health group’s and my number one priority, in the coming months, right up to the election.
Christina McAnea is Unison head of health.
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