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From relying on food banks just to eat and being too busy to care for patients left in their own faeces: Nurses on the picket lines reveal exactly why they’re striking… but others warn they have a ‘moral duty’ not to abandon patients

  • Up to 100,000 nurses are striking today and again on December 20 over pay
  • Royal College of Nursing is calling for a 19.2 per cent pay rise for its members 
  • But the Government says this pay rise is ‘unaffordable’
  • Some nurses are against the strikes and believe it is ‘morally wrong’ 

Today marks the biggest ever NHS strike, with up to 100,000 nurses taking to picket lines in a row over pay.

Nurses demanding change insist they have been left with no choice but to strike, saying how they’ve been left ‘overworked’ and ‘stressed’. 

Some manning the picket lines today revealed they’ve had to take on extra shifts just to pay their bills and have began to rely on food banks to feed their families.

Others have told of their disgust at patients being forced to lay in their own faeces due to a lack of staff. 

But not every nurse agrees. Some believe the strikes are ‘morally wrong’ and will ‘harm patients’. 

Members of the Royal College of Nursing on the picket line today outside the Belfast City Hospital. The Royal College of Nursing is is calling for a 19.2 per cent pay rise, 5 per cent above inflation

This map shows the hospitals where the Royal College of Nursing will hold its first strikes over pay on Thursday 15 and Tuesday 20 December

ICU nurse Amanda Smith, based in Belfast, told MailOnline she is concerned that a lot of nurses are leaving the profession in search of better wages. 

After working as a nurse in the NHS for 15 years she is now going on strike. 

She said: ‘My money doesn’t go as far, lasix iv availability and I have to do extra shifts to make ends meet and pay the bills.

‘If they paid the nurses appropriately and also had a pay that reflected the cost of living and inflation then I think they would retain more nurses in the NHS. 

‘We would have a better chance of getting all our areas up and running after the Covid pandemic.’

In response to fears that patients’ lives will be put at risk, she said: ‘By not highlighting these issues and by not going on strike you are failing to advocate for your patients, and you are not encouraging people to reflect on what is happening in the NHS.’ 

Amanda Smith (pictured right), an ICU nurse based in Belfast has worked in the profession for 15 years and is striking today for better pay. NHS nurse Carmel O’Boyle (pictured left) is also taking to the picket line today in Liverpool. She says the low pay has left colleagues to rely on food banks and take on extra shifts

Nursing strikes Q&A: Everything you need to know 

What was the result of the strike?

Nurses at the majority of NHS organisations on the ballot voted to strike – 176 out of 311 NHS employers across the UK. Some did not meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold.

When will strikes last and how long will the strike last?

Strikes are expected to begin in early December and could take place over two dates, potentially a Tuesday and a Thursday. They could last until early May 2023.

What level of care can patients expect?

The RCN handbook says nursing provision during the strike period should be equal to the skeleton staffing usually seen on Christmas Day, although the NHS says it has well-tested procedures to limit disruption.

Which nurses will remain in post?

Emergency nurses in A&E and intensive care will keep working, as will district nurses who help elderly people in the community. Other exemptions will be negotiated at a local level.

Why are nurses going on strike?

The Royal College of Nursing is campaigning for a pay rise of five per cent above inflation, claiming an experienced nurse’s salary has fallen by 20 per cent since 2010.

What is the pay deal they are unhappy with?

Nurses in England and Wales received a pay increase of at least £1,400 this year, but the RCN claims this left them effectively working a day a week for free.

Have there been nursing strikes before?

Yes – some nurses from the union UNISON went on strike in 2014 and RCN nurses in Northern Ireland walked out in 2019 but this is the first time the RCN has balloted all its 300,000 members in all UK countries in its 106-year history.

Who could be next to strike?

Hundreds of thousands of junior doctors, midwives, physiotherapists, paramedics, ICT staff and porters are among NHS staff either being balloted or expected to be balloted on strike action over anger about pay rises. The next result should be from Unison, who closes its ballot on November 25 after asking 350,000 NHS workers whether they want to strike. 

Carmel O’Boyle, a NHS nurse practitioner in Liverpool, also took to the picket line today.

She believes that without a pay rise more staff would quit the NHS, making the staffing shortages even worse. 

She said: ‘A few years ago, finding a patient on a corridor would be horrific… Now it’s a daily occurrence.

‘Going on strike was a really difficult decision. We don’t want to walk away from patients. 

‘We want to give the best care that we can. But we can’t do that because there’s not enough of us.’ 

She added that the low pay has left colleagues to rely on food banks and take on extra shifts. 

She said: ‘You’ve got people who are already overworked and overburdened and stressed having to pull in extra shifts.

‘At the moment we can’t attract people to the profession. If they can’t afford to pay the bills, nurses will go elsewhere.’ 

However, for many nurses the strike action is not just about money. 

Debbie, a nurse from North West England whose name has been changed because she did not wish to be identified, said: ‘I am not striking for money.

‘I am striking for my fellow human beings that are receiving an exceptionally poor service in the NHS.

‘There are deaths in the back of ambulances, there are people dying at home because ambulances can’t get to them, we’ve got A&E corridors that have turned into pseudo wards.’

She rejects the argument nurses are abandoning their patients, instead she blames the Government for the current state of the NHS. 

She said: ‘They are not my patients, I go to work and care for people just like a mechanic services your car. It’s not his car, he’s working on it – they are not my patients.

‘Patients dying is not my responsibility. Ambulances failing to turn up for six hours is not my responsibility. 12-hour waits in A&E are not my responsibility. It’s the Government’. 

Linda Tovey, a critical care nurse from Kent, believes the argument that the strikes put patients safety at risk is the ‘same argument that is had every day’.  

The 49-year-old, who stood on the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital in Westminster today, said: ‘There has been a huge amount of work to keep patients safe during the strike but that work happens every day.’

She added: ‘There is a huge amount of effort required to patch the holes in the nursing workforce and part of the reason why so many people are leaving is the work is difficult because there aren’t enough of us and the system is under so much stress.

‘The money that you get paid doesn’t seem worth it, there are far easier ways to make a better living and we go home feeling guilty because we can’t do the job we were trained to do.’

Pamela Jones, on the picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, said: ‘I’m striking today because I’ve been nursing for 32 years; within those 32 years the changes have been astronomical.

‘I feel really sorry for the young girls who are now trying to get into the profession, they have to pay for their training.’

She explained she was ‘torn’ about striking because it is not something she ever thought she would have to do in her lifetime.

But she feels the Government has pushed them to it.  

She said: ‘The public need to understand the pressures that everyone’s under. You’ve only got to come into A&E and see the queues, there’s no beds.

‘We want to save our NHS, we don’t want it to go, and I think this is the way forward, it’s the only way we can put our point across.’

Nurse Kelly Hopkins (pictured left) is striking today with members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), on the picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool. The 46-year-old who has worked as nurse for 25 years said patients are being neglected because there isn’t enough staff. Catherine Marsh (pictured right) stood on the picket line today outside the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne. She said the trust has started to give staff free meals after some were struggling to pay

Kelly Hopkins, a nurse at Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, has taken to the picket line today over safe staffing levels.

The 46-year-old who has worked as nurse for 25 years said patients are being neglected because there isn’t enough staff.

She said: ‘The wards are understaffed, which is affecting patient care.

‘I came into nursing to give good nursing care and we can’t give it because there’s not enough of it.

‘Patients aren’t getting their teeth brushed, they’re lying in their own waste because there aren’t enough of us, we can’t split ourselves in two, especially on the wards.

‘Unless we stand up and say something, it’s just going to get worse.’

Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is giving out free porridge to workers at its Royal Victoria Infirmary and Freeman Hospital sites this winter because staff have been struggling to pay for food. 

Research nurse Catherine Marsh took to the picket line today outside the Freeman Hospital said: ‘We have a situation where the trust is giving us free porridge and meals in the evening.

‘This was caused by a member of staff going to the restaurant, she got her porridge, she got to the till and was unable to pay.

‘She was there in floods of tears.

‘The restaurant staff phoned the chaplaincy and the chaplaincy have arranged free meals’.

This graph shows the Royal College of Nursing’s demands for a 5 per cent above inflation pay rise for the bands covered by its membership which includes healthcare assistants and nurses. Estimates based on NHS Employers data


But some nurses feel very strongly against the strike action.

Sarah Jane Palmer opposes the strike and believes nurses have a ‘moral duty’ to not abandon their patients. 

The 35-year-old nurse, from London, added: ‘Fair pay is important but a life is more important. To jeopardise human life over your salary is morally wrong’. 

Ms Palmer took a break from nursing earlier this year to write for academic journals but she hopes to rejoin the NHS next year.

She said: ‘It’s misunderstanding the mood of the nation – every single person in a hard-working job will see a real terms cut.

‘To strike over not getting an impossible sum of money in a recession is morally wrong’.

Richard Knowles has been a nurse for 40 years but has resigned in protest against the latest strike action.

Mr Knowles, who worked as a psychiatric nurse on the Isle of Wight, believes the strikes are ‘completely abhorrent’ and will ‘harm patients’. 

He told the BBC the he still remembers an industrial dispute when he started.

He said: ‘I was just left alone on this ward of 40 elderly, severely mentally ill patients to look after them with just one nursing assistant for company while the rest of the nurses went out and manned the picket line or blockaded the hospital’s laundry so that we couldn’t get clean sheets for our incontinent patients.

‘I just vowed at that time that I would never go on strike or join a union that advocated strike action.

‘So earlier this year I was mightily disappointed that the RCN had decided to ballot its members to go on strike with a recommendation that they voted for strike action.

‘I immediately resigned after being a member for 40 years because I just absolutely don’t believe that nurses should go on strike.’

Sarah Jane Palmer (pictured right) believes the strikes are ‘morally wrong’. the 35-year-old nurse from London says that ‘life is more important’. Richard Knowles (pictured left) is a psychiatric nurse on the Isle of Wight and says the the strikes are ‘completely abhorrent’

Marcus Round is a health care assistant at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham and says he can’t afford to take part in the strikes especially as Christmas is around the corner. 

The 31-year-old said: ‘I’m a health care assistant so I am part of a different union.

‘I’ve got Christmas coming up and I can’t afford to strike as I have a family to care for.

‘The whole hospital is short staffed today because of the strike and I don’t think the strike will really achieve anything.’

Ian Summers, a mental health nurse in Cornwall, told the BBC: ‘I voted no because I felt we were going to put patients at risk.

‘During this nursing crisis, if we reduce the levels even further with strike action the only outcome can be patient safety.

‘There’s a crisis in the UK regarding nurses. Nursing numbers on wards are at critical levels.

‘What’s going to happen to people going to hospitals, people in the community — it frightens me because the risk is already there.

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