Inside the NHS: why workers are taking action

Tomorrow healthcare workers from across nine unions are taking action over defence of pay at the NHS. The strike is for four hours between 7am and 11am. The rs21 leaflet in support of the strike can be found here 

Mary, a student nurse at King’s College London, highlights the important of those at the start of their careers taking action now to defend the NHS and below, Emma Clewer, also a student nurse at King’s College London, interviews a Healthcare Assistant working in an NHS hospital in London about her experiences of working on a ward.

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The picket at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, was the first one I had attended, and I can confidently say it will not be my last. As a Student Nurse, I hope to have a long career in the NHS, and so I felt obliged to start now in campaigning for better wages for the Nurses. There was a whole mixture of health care professions on strike that morning and it was an amazing atmosphere, and turnout, despite the miserable weather. Members of the public came up to us telling us how much they supported what we were doing, and that it is only right that people working in healthcare should be getting fairer wages especially when you compare it to other jobs (e.g. MPs) and what they earn. Some even brought us biscuits!

With the hospital conveniently located across the bridge from Westminister it was only right that we finished the 4 hour strike with a march outside of Parliament. I went to the picket because if I want a fair wage when I begin work I need to ensure that change happens now, and not wait around another 2 years and then consider it an issue. A chant from that day was: ‘Who’s NHS? Our NHS!’ But, if we ALL do not fight, as we ALL use the healthcare system, for fair pay for the employees, what will become of our NHS?


Can you give me a description of your ward?

I work in Urgent care, Geriatric medicine, in a hospital in North London. Our staffing levels should be 1:6 for nurses and 1:8 for HCA’s but often it is 1:10 for nurses and 1:12 for HCA’s. As I understand it, it is the same throughout our hospital except for the private wards that are on the top floor.

What do you see as the main strains on the NHS at the moment?

I think under staffing and increased use, especially in the winter and especially in the elderly, of our services. Staff simply cannot cope with such a strain.

What is the consequence of this?

It means we discharge people too early, we do not spend enough time with our patients or involve them in their care and we often overlook the issues our patients have because we have little time to sit and talk about what it is that bothers them. Often, they return in a week or so.

Does what happen on the ward have an impact on staff outside of the ward?

I can only speak for myself, but often I go home feel guilty about not doing enough for my patients. I worry that I didn’t have a minute to sit and listen to them and that I hadn’t done enough personal care for them so that they may have been sitting uncomfortably all day. If I had more time at work I wouldn’t feel like that.

What would you like to see from the strike on Monday?

Honestly, I don’t expect much from it. Firstly it is 4 hours, which can both encourage and discourage staff to join. The fact it is only 4 hours may get people to join because it isn’t a whole shift that your leaving the ward for. On the other hand, returning to the ward after a shift can be daunting, especially if you are one of the only people who went on strike and left the ward understaffed.

Is there an active Union at your hospital? Did they organise for the last strike?

My Unison branch is very small and has little to no trace around the hospital. No lanyards, no posters and no pin-board. The last picket line had about 50 people at it, but it didn’t start till 9 am. I went down on my tea break (I’m not allowed to strike as I am on probation), and tried to talk to people about the place we work, the union and the “Britain Needs a Payrise” demo that happened the following weekend. If I’m honest they didn’t really want to engage with me and I soon left after a few minutes as I felt like a fish out of water.

Do you feel there is general agreement among those you work with about the strike action and the problems in the NHS?

With my colleagues there’s defiantly a sense of “this is really bad” and “why are we always so short” but it never leads to a discussion about privatisation. The hospital I work in would probably not be the place where that discussion would be so frequent. All wards treat both private and NHS patients at the same time, so it has become normalised. During the last strike, none of the nursing staff on my ward joined. None of them even mentioned it. The ward I work on is very demanding and therefore it isn’t a surprise that it hadn’t been taken note of it.

What do you think needs to be done to tackle these issues and encourage more people to get involved in strike action?

I think if the union was stronger in my work then the thoughts about short staffing and crap pay would naturally lead to more conversations about private-sation and willingness to go through with action in whatever form. I don’t think that Monday’s strike will send ripples through the hospital but I hope that if action continues, on whatever scale, then it will make the union a bigger force within the hospital and it will go about trying to engage people especially the lowest paid in talks of privatisation and the fight for our NHS.

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