'The goodwill of nurses is being abused'

New nursing leader issues stark warning to politicians as she vows to defend the profession

Dame Donna Kinnair delivered a defiant speech at the UK’s largest nursing conference in Liverpool. 

The College’s new Chief Executive & General Secretary blasted ministers’ disregard for tackling dangerous nursing workforce shortages. “Underestimate us at your peril,” she warned.  

“We will not stop until people are held to account for the desperate shortages each and every one of us has witnessed. Politicians must stop short-changing the public. They must stop the rot and put an end to the workforce crisis in nursing.”

I will not stand by while this profession is denigrated

Calling for accountability in law, in all parts of the UK, for ensuring there are enough nurses to deliver safe patient care, Donna specifically demanded the government puts back the money it “so catastrophically ripped out” of nursing higher education in England.

“The goodwill of nursing staff is being abused and politicians must know it is running out,” she raged. “I will not stand by while this profession is denigrated.” 

We must invest in the future of nursing 

The RCN wants at least £1bn invested back into nursing higher education in England to help the country get a grip on reducing the 40,000 vacant NHS nurse jobs. 

Pointing to the new staffing law in Scotland, which cleared its final parliamentary hurdle earlier this month, Dame Donna gave credit to the tireless campaigning efforts of nursing staff. 

“The work of RCN members made the legislation what it is,” she said. “You pushed to extend the scope of it into social care and give it the teeth it really needed.”

Scotland is now the second country in the UK to set staffing accountability in law after Wales became the first in Europe to legislate in 2016. In Northern Ireland, where there is no government, staffing shortages combined with low pay levels represent a “public safety issue” Donna warned. 

There, the threat of industrial action is real, and the RCN is seeking support from the public to take whatever measures necessary to safeguard the future of nursing and patient care.

If you the members want it, industrial action, strike action, must always be on the table

It’s an approach Donna said she’s not afraid to consider as the College prepares to enter fresh NHS pay negotiations next year. “Let’s be clear,” she said. “If you the members want it, industrial action, strike action, must always be on the table.”

'I will be my own woman' 

Giving an insight into her leadership style as she settles in to the role a month on from being announced permanent Chief Executive, Donna said: “I will be my own woman. I got here by standing tall and proud and speaking as I find. I will speak truth to power and friends alike.”

Donna also revealed some of her nursing background, her roots in health visiting and how she “cut her teeth” as an activist. She told members how she helped rehouse impoverished families living in dangerous tower blocks, supported young people involved in gangs and helped tackle the practice of female genital mutilation. 

It’s these experiences, perhaps, that have prepared her for taking on the top job and so determinedly defending the profession. 

As Donna took time to reflect on the challenges the RCN itself has faced over the past 12 months, she said the organisation had grown and changed following a “pretty bumpy” time. 

“I believe we’ve rediscovered our voice,” she said. “That voice is the member voice. The RCN is each and every one of us. It is members and staff, standing shoulder to shoulder, mobilising together and enriching one another with our expertise and passion.”

So as she concluded her first major address to members, she urged them to be bold and demand the respect nursing deserves. 

The stakes are high. But so is our determination

“Wherever politicians are watching us this week, they will be in no doubt at the strong voice of nursing,” she said. “We are the most trusted profession in the UK. Those at the bottom of that list shouldn’t be speaking down to us.

“We might not be angels. But we are certainly spirited. Our profession deserves a lot of respect that has been missing for some years. I will do all I can to see it restored. 

“The stakes are high. But so is our determination. Let’s work together and we will win.” 

Find out more

Visit the RCN Congress pages.

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