NURSES in Scotland won’t be guilt-tripped out of going on strike because staffing levels in the NHS are already unsafe and “can’t get any worse”, a nursing leader has warned.
Julie Lamberth, a maternity theatre nurse and chair of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland, said she “genuinely believes” nurses will vote in favour of walkouts for the first time in the history of the NHS in Scotland unless their pay offer is radically improved.
The RCN is balloting members across the UK on strike action from today, with a deadline to respond by November 2.
If members vote in favour, the move would see tens of thousands of NHS nurses in hospitals and the community withdraw all but emergency care in the run up to Christmas.
It comes as Health Secretary Humza Yousaf made an eleventh hour bid to avoid industrial action when he announced plans to reconvene pay negotiations with health trade unions, including RCN and Unison, next week.
Nurses have been offered a five per cent uplift – the highest single year increase on record, but also far short of inflation.
Mr Yousaf has promised a “significantly improved pay offer” but said it must be “within the financial envelope, that I don’t have to take money away from cancer services or mental health services”.
Ms Lamberth said: “Patients can see nurses are under pressure – they’re working understaffed, it can’t get any worse.
“Yes, if we do go on strike, it’s going to have an impact, but it’s about reducing that and we will still run the services the same as what’s provided at Christmas Day and public holidays, so your emergency services will still be provided, but a lot of areas are already unsafe as it is.
“In some areas they’ve got two nurses to 32 patients. Nurses are coming off shift in tears. We’ve got over 6000 unfilled vacancies – that’s a workforce crisis.
“I think they’re trying to make us feel guilty, and they think we won’t do it ‘because we’re nurses, we don’t do that’, but we’ve absolutely had enough.
“There’s no more services that they can cut.”
The nursing and midwifery workforce in NHS Scotland has grown by around 8000 since 2012, but vacancy rates have also soared – from 3.8% in December 2020 to 8.6% as of June this year, with shortages particularly acute in Lothian.
A report last week by the think tank Nuffield Health found that health services in both Scotland and England are now losing nurses faster than ever.
In the year to March 2022, some 7,470 nurses left the NHS workforce in Scotland – equivalent to one in nine.
An RCN survey of nurses who left last year found that retirement, personal circumstances, and “too much pressure” were the most common reasons for doing so.
Research has also shown that EU nationals are more likely to leave than British or non-EU nurses, with Scotland consistently seeing the largest exodus of nurses year after year of any part of the UK since the Brexit vote in 2016.
Concerns have also been raised by the trade union after the number of students accepted onto 2022/23 nursing and midwifery university courses fell 700 short of target.
“When you see the pay in some other areas, what you could get for less stress and less responsibility, people are not attracted to go into nursing,” said Ms Lamberth.
RCN Scotland director, Colin Poolman, said it has been pressing the Scottish Government to get back round the negotiating table for months, adding: “It shouldn’t have taken the commencement of our strike ballot to reach this point.”
Mr Yousaf said he will do “everything in my power to prevent industrial action”, adding: “I understand why trade unions are asking for a pay deal that is closer to inflation – because of the UK Government’s economic mismanagement inflation is through the roof.”