U.K. nurses, struggling to pay bills, say strike is for future of health care

In UK News


LONDON — Leena Myllynen so often struggled to pay her rent and other bills when she worked as a nurse at a British hospital that she considered leaving the profession altogether.

Between a pandemic that left hospitals short-staffed and record inflation that slashed the value of her salary, “I was completely exhausted and just demoralized,” she told The Washington Post. “I was never, ever able to make it through to payday, even when I worked extra hours,” the 32-year-old nurse said.

That is why she left Britain’s taxpayer-funded National Health Service — a cherished British institution and one of the world’s largest employers. It is also why, she says, many nurses across Britain voted this month to strike for the first time in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the country’s largest nursing union. The strike is expected before the end of the year.

The pandemic that overwhelmed medical services worldwide has not spared the NHS, which has a backlog of millions of patients awaiting treatment for a wide range of illnesses. And the unprecedented pressures for funding in the NHS after the pandemic has affected access to health care even for some medical workers.

When Myllynen’s partner, an NHS doctor, experienced severe pneumonia and blood clotting, they went from one emergency room to another looking for a hospital bed, she said. “He ended up sleeping on the floor [of an emergency room] for 12 hours” because of the lack of beds, she recalled.

“The short-staffing that’s resulted from the poor pay and conditions affects all of us,” Myllynen added. “We are patients, too.”

Britain is experiencing its highest inflation rate in 41 years, and it is squeezing funding for the health-care system. Forecasts of a long recession and surging energy prices have led to warnings that people could see “the biggest fall in household incomes in generations,” as Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said.

The nursing union, which has hundreds of thousands of members, says the pay problem has worsened staff shortages and jeopardized patient safety. According to research commissioned by the RCN, the earnings of an experienced nurse fell in real-terms by at least 20 percent since 2010 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Although British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described nurses’ demand for a nearly 17 percent pay increase — 5 percent above inflation as “unaffordable,” he said talks this week between the health secretary and union leaders would help those involved “see how we can resolve this.” Health officials hope for an agreement to avert a wave of walkouts this winter.

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British government officials say a pay offer made in July, with an average increase of 4.75 percent for nurses in England next year, was in line with recommendations by an independent NHS pay review body.

The plan would boost the average basic pay for nurses from around $42,000 as of March 2022 to nearly $44,000, according to the government, which argues that larger increases would worsen inflation and expand the country’s debt.

But, as a cost-of-living crisis hits everyone, paramedics, ambulance workers and cleaners also are voting on joining the nurses in a strike.

Leanne Patrick, a nurse specialist in gender-based violence for the NHS in Scotland, said she voted in favor of the nurses’ strike not for herself but for the challenges she sees in the majority-female profession. The mother of two said nurses were not paid fairly for their skills or for the level of risk they manage, and she said she hoped the walkout would make their voices heard.

The pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis led to health facilities “hemorrhaging staff” after years of below-inflation pay increases and brought about “a kind of tipping point,” Patrick told The Post.

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She said many nurses backed the strike because “we know it … affects, not just us, but other nurses, and ultimately, patient care.”

When staffing shortages prevent nurses from providing “safe levels of care,” Patrick said, nurses realize “they’re going home worrying about patients at the end of the day.”

And when nurses also feel undervalued, she added, “it’s not surprising to think that after all this heartache,” they think, “Could I do something a lot less stressful … for a similar amount of pay?”

Since she left the NHS last year, Myllynen, who works in the northern English city of Leeds, has moved to a nursing job in the private sector at a charity, so she did not take part in the RCN vote. But she said she supports the decision, which she described as “the last option,” and hopes it will help to resolve a problem that she says has been building for years.

“This strike is not selfish; it’s about saving the NHS,” she said. “… it’s about our own health care in the future.”

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