We need to stop talking about nurses’ pay. Before people start thinking I’ve been to the Conservative Party’s HQ for the forced consumption of a vat of government Kool-Aid, I should explain what I mean by that.
This is not a call to end the debate about what nurses get paid. It’s just that the phrase “nurses’ pay”, which is all over the media and is regularly used by politicians, is creating a problem because it isn’t just nurses who’ve been insulted by the government’s derisory 1 per cent pay proposal.
We know nurses have performed superhuman feats, risked their lives, watched other people lose theirs, may need help to deal with the attendant trauma (I know from personal experience that PTSD can be hellish), during the pandemic, hence the current controversy.
But limiting the debate to nurses ignores the fact that the NHS is an enormous team made up of a vast number of professionals and patient care within it involves the work of large interdisciplinary teams, of which nurses (and doctors) are just a part.
Healthcare assistants, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, ambulance drivers and paramedics, cleaners (don’t underestimate their role), porters (ditto), caterers, bereavement counsellors, they’ve all been playing an important part in the battle against Covid-19.
They are just a selection of the occupations that I pulled from the top of my head because they’re familiar to me from my own extended hospital experience, which included a lengthy spell in an ICU, a decade ago.
Let me think some more. Bed bookers, receptionists, security guards. Apologies if your discipline isn’t on there, but I could easily fill an entire column with a more definitive list.
Even those who haven’t been directly exposed to Covid patients, which means putting their lives at risk, have been working under intense pressure.
Labour shadow ministers call for ‘minimum’ 2.1% pay rise for nurses
Some of the people in supporting roles may, quietly, prove to have an outsize impact when the dust has finally settled, such as the GPs’ receptionists spending hours on end convincing people to take up vaccination offers.
And yet the talk is all nurses, nurses, nurses.
Partly that’s because they’re perhaps the most visible part of the NHS. Partly it’s because the word resonates with the public. It’s more evocative than the alternative “NHS staff”, more apt to pull at the heart strings and grab voters’ attention.
But in limiting the discussion to nurses we risk ignoring the contribution of others who’ve also gone above and beyond the call of duty. And it isn’t just that. There’s a potentially political problem lurking here too.
When it comes to NHS pay, the government has very obviously put itself out of step with public opinion. There are some Tory backbenchers who realise that. Nor is the issue going to go away now the buck has been passed to the pay review body. There won’t be a royal scandal every week to distract attention from it.
The trouble with the focus on nurses is that it presents the government with an opportunity to try and buy off the public by giving them a bung and ignoring the rest of the NHS.
This isn’t quite as easy as it might look. The NHS has a large and complicated pay system that evaluates various occupations and places them in bands. A nurse might, for example, be in the same band as, say, a physio or a radiographer.
But within it there is a degree of flexibility to, for example, offer additional basic pay to people in occupations experiencing shortages. There are thousands of nursing vacancies at the moment. So there’s one potential “out” for the government.
Another would be to pay a “Covid bonus”. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland did this, but for all NHS staff.
It would be horribly divisive to limit such a payment to nurses, not least if, say, the physio they work in the same team with, who spends their days moving comatose Covid patients, doesn’t get one as well. It would upset a lot of nurses, who tend to be empathetic people, hence their attraction to the job.
But since when has being divisive stopped this particular government?
Bonuses are also greatly inferior to an increase in basic pay. While they may be nice to have, they’re completely useless when it comes to, say, applying for a mortgage, because they’re a one off. But that doesn’t matter if your sole aim is to use them as a cheap trick for the purposes of buying off the public.
All this being true, while it mightn’t be quite as punchy, we need to talk more often about “NHS staff” and the insult done to them.
If you really must use “nurses” perhaps at least say “nurses and other NHS staff” – something Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed smartly corrected himself while discussing the issue on Question Time.
My suite of injuries meant I developed a particular appreciation for physios, but other people will have stories of their own about the people in the vast and under valued team that makes up this most cherished of national institutions. We cannot allow the government to forget that it is a team when it comes to the question of rewards.