Why nurses need urgent action on fair pay

FROM today RCN members across Scotland and the other three UK countries will be receiving strike ballot papers in the post.

In a historic move, the Royal College of Nursing is not only balloting its members working in the NHS on strike action but is also recommending they vote in favour of taking strike action.

Nursing staff are the bedrock of patient care and critical to safe treatment, but today there are not enough to treat patients safely and effectively. More than 6,000 NHS nursing posts are unfilled, and our members working across health and social care are telling us about chronic staff shortages, risks to patient safety and intolerable levels of pressure this is placing on staff.

Our members go to work to do their best but too often they are unable to provide the level of care they want because there simply are not enough of them. This takes a huge toll on nursing staff.

Strike action is the last resort, but our members are telling us that enough is enough.

Nursing pay been cut in real terms for a decade – and has fallen far behind rising inflation and private sector pay. This undervaluing of the role is putting people off joining and is driving qualified staff out of the profession. Six in 10 RCN members in Scotland are considering leaving their job. Feeling undervalued, too much pressure and low pay are given as the key reasons for them wanting to leave. An increase in nurses leaving the NHS is further evidence of the scale of the nursing workforce crisis in Scotland right now.

For too long the Scottish Government has relied on the goodwill and dedication of nursing staff to prop up the NHS. Nearly 40% are working beyond their contracted hours most shifts. The annual bill for agency nursing costs for NHS Scotland more than doubled to more than £88 million in 2021-22. While it is no surprise that health boards have to resort to expensive agency nurses to fill gaps, the level of spend is simply not sustainable. Our members find it shocking that the Government would rather pay private sector rates than ensure nursing staff are paid a fair wage. Some investment in agency nursing will always be needed to cover unexpected events and ensure safe patient care but it is not the solution to the current workforce crisis. Neither is recruiting nurses from overseas in the middle of a global nurse shortage.

The Scottish Government and NHS boards must act to tackle staff shortages, retain experienced staff, and demonstrate that nursing is valued as the safety critical profession it is. The link between low pay, staff shortages and patient safety is clear and a pay rise that goes significantly above inflation is crucial to retaining skilled nursing staff and attracting much needed recruits into the profession.

It is up to the Scottish Government to act now to demonstrate to nursing staff that they are valued and to deliver the investment our profession needs to deliver safe care.

Colin Poolman is Director, Royal College of Nursing Scotland

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