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Editorial NHS pay demands should prompt a nationwide struggle on jobs and wages

HEALTH unions are putting the Prime Minister on the spot today over pay as key workers report record child poverty rates.

With hospitals overwhelmed by Covid cases soaring, health unions are right to point to the threat of burnout among exhausted NHS staff.

Few would dispute that after a year of battling the pandemic healthcare workers deserve a serious pay rise — especially given the failure of recent pay awards to bring nurses pay back to 2010 levels in real terms.

That’s reflected in polling published by 14 health unions showing majority support for bringing forward an NHS pay rise.

As Unison and the Royal Colleges of Nursing and Midwives point out, raising pay is also essential to deal with chronic staffing shortages.

In the immediate term the tens of thousands of nursing vacancies in the NHS are hobbling the system’s attempt to cope with coronavirus, especially given the further shortages caused by the need to isolate infected staff.

In the longer term, political pressure must be raised to stop the government returning, like a dog to its vomit, to the exact policies that landed us in this mess.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s bluster about the “extremely challenging fiscal and economic context” in which ministers are forced to consider “the affordability of pay awards” is a sign that No 10 intends to use the very economic dislocation its own shambolic response to the virus has caused to justify a return to austerity.

Its twisted logic must be challenged.

“Covid-19 was the rainy day we had been saving for,” former PM David Cameron had the gall to claim last year, implying that a decade of “savings” put Britain in a better condition to tackle the crisis.

The reverse is the truth — savage spending cuts had sunk the NHS in “a permanent winter crisis” even before Covid, local authorities were starved of resources to cope with emergencies and a public sector riddled with outsourcing and privatisation wreaked havoc with supply chains, undermined workplace safety and removed accountability.

The Tories’ systematic attacks on labour rights and endorsement of a burgeoning “gig economy” has left millions without the resources or security to isolate when ill, encouraging the spread of the virus, while cuts to bodies like the Health and Safety Executive have left it toothless, unable to police employers who are still forcing non-essential workers into workplaces (including other people’s homes in the cases of cleaners and many tradespeople) on a large scale.

The Tories may assume that their large majority is carte blanche to rip up workers’ rights, drive down pay and accelerate the privatisation and fragmentation of the public sector.

But their victory in 2019, particularly in the so-called “Red Wall” areas seized from Labour, was won after they had rejected austerity, expressing support for state investment and “levelling up,” a tactical shift forced by the obvious appeal of Labour’s socialist manifesto in 2017.

There is a public appetite for a new deal — higher pay across the public sector, action to defend and create jobs, investment in public services and extending public ownership. But such an agenda has to be fought and campaigned for publicly.

The NHS pay demands should fire the starting gun on a nationwide campaign over jobs and wages co-ordinated by trade unions with trades councils at local level and community organisations.

Ministers will try to turn the employed against the unemployed, private-sector workers against those in the public sector and workers in different branches of public service against each other, all on the false premise that there is no money — when their “chumocracy” has been a bonanza for the super-rich.

The labour movement must respond by campaigning to bring as many forces as possible together in the understanding that working people not only deserve better — we can win better.

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