UK Nurses Threaten to Strike After Government Offers Measly Below-Inflation Pay Rise

With vax mandates looming and industrial action on the table, the UK’s overstretched National Health Service could be in for a winter of even more discontent.

In April 2020, at the peak of the UK’s first wave of the pandemic, Boris Johnson called the NHS the UK’s greatest national asset. That national asset, having already been seriously devalued by the now disgraced Matt Hancock, is now under the stewardship of Savid Javid, a former senior banker at JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank who strongly supports the privatisation of public services. After replacing Hancock as health secretary, Javid wants to shake things up even more at the NHS, even as the Tory’s latest root-and-branch reform, the Health & Care Bill, awaits its third reading in parliament.    

To do much of the shaking, Javid has called on General Sir Gordon Messenger, a former vice chief of the UK’s defence staff. Messenger is expected to bring military discipline to NHS management. Those who don’t yield, by quickly bringing down patient waiting times, will be ruthlessly dispatched. In other words, a banker who made a name for himself structuring emerging market synthetic CDOs for JP Morgan Chase and later Deutsche Bank has appointed a
military general with extensive experience of commanding the commando in Iraq and Afghanistan to restore order to the UK’s rapidly faltering National Health Service. What could possibly go wrong?

Conflict Stirs in the Trenches

Meanwhile, on the organisation’s front lines the once-lionised nurses and care workers are agitating for a meaningful pay rise. After all the sacrifices they’ve made and hazards they’ve faced over the past 19 months, it seems like a reasonable request. But all the government will offer is a measly 3%. Given that the consumer price index in the UK is currently 3.2% and is expected to reach as high as 4.8% in coming months, said “rise” is actually a cut in real terms. 

But that is not the worst part. The worst part is that nurses and care workers will be part funding their own pay rise thanks to the government’s recent hike in national insurance payments. As the Guardian reports, “a nurse or midwife on an average salary will see their tax bill soar by £310, care home workers will have to pay at least £140 more and ambulance staff will be hit with a £420 increase. On average, 1.4 million NHS staff will each have to fork out £315 more a year.”

Unsurprisingly, the nurses are not happy and are now contemplating industrial action. The biggest union, the Royal College of Nursing, says that 92% of its 450,000 members oppose the 3% pay rise. Those members, who represent roughly two-thirds of the country’s nurses, will soon be voting in a ballot on whether to participate in industrial action. If the vote passes, the choice will be between either working to rule, which means finishing on time, not staying behind hours after the shift ends or doing extra shifts when a hospital is short of staff, or going on strike. Either way, the di1sruption to an organisation that is already massively understaffed will be huge. 

Three other public sector unions — Unite, Unison and the GMB — have also said that between 80-90% of their NHS members have rejected the government’s offer. Both Unite and the GMB are also preparing to hold a strike ballot. 

This is the second time this year that NHS staff have threatened to strike. The first was in March after the government made an even more desultory offer, of a 1% rise. At that time consumer price inflation in the UK was 0.7%. It has since risen to 3.2% and UK inflation expectations are at a 13-year high. This is putting huge pressure on low-income public workers, many of whom are demanding a commensurate pay rise. The government has so far refused to give in, arguing that public finances are under unprecedented strain. 

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