But there are some compelling reasons why, despite the economic gloom, fair pay for nursing and other staff in health and care services should be a priority right now for the UK’s governments. And it’s not because nursing staff deserve some sort of reward or recognition for the way they have shouldered the immense burden of responding to the pandemic.
It is, however, directly linked to ensuring the right workforce is in place to deliver safe and effective care.
Fair paying for nursing is a must to make sure the right numbers of people are still attracted to join the workforce. And fair pay for nursing is a must to right the wrongs of many years of financial austerity that has seen nursing pay fall significantly far behind inflation.
Even before the pandemic the RCN was warning about the crisis in the nursing workforce. With more than 3,500 nursing and midwifery posts vacant in Scotland, staff were working with one hand tied behind their back before March this year. The physical and psychological cost of trying to manage increasing workloads while short staffed is difficult to truly comprehend.
The net effect of that pressure plus the extreme circumstances of the last seven months is that more nursing staff are thinking of leaving - according to a survey of RCN members this summer, 38% in Scotland are thinking of leaving, up from 27% at the end of 2019. Low staffing levels, pay and how staff have been treated during the pandemic were among the reasons cited for thinking about leaving.
In addition, around one in five nursing staff in the UK workforce are 56 years or older, a figure that has increased during the time of the pandemic, according to the latest statistics from the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Their presence in the workforce has been valuable during the pandemic but to have such a significant number of nursing staff that close to retirement is another potential problem for the future.
While applications to nursing courses in Scotland have increased this year, it is not a time to be complacent. With an average of 22% of student nurses in Scotland not completing their course, it seems like a lot of hard work just to stand still.
These are all reasons why in our ‘Fair Pay for Nursing’ campaign the RCN is calling for a 12.5% pay increase for nursing staff wherever they are working in the four UK countries. Alongside the 13 other health trade unions we’re continuing to call on the UK government to open immediate talks for a pay award to be in payslips by the end of this year. Across social media and in more than 10,000 emails from RCN members and members of the public to MPs, our message has been clear.
The Scottish government has indicated a willingness to progress discussions on pay and have confirmed they support the call by the RCN and other trade unions call to bring forward the settlement due from April 2021. The RCN is, alongside the other health trade unions, working through preliminary talks with Scottish government and employers, but we remain adamant that meaningful negotiations need to begin very soon.
Our Fair Pay for Nursing campaign unapologetically focuses on pay. But we never forget that pay is only one link in the chain that helps ensure staffing levels are safe.
The saying goes that you don’t truly appreciate something until you lose it. The UK’S governments need to act decisively now so that the whole country is not left regretting a vastly depleted workforce that would be a real threat to safe and effective health and social care.