The government has recently pledged to increase some NHS staff’s wages by 3%. The decision took place after facing widespread criticism earlier in the year for pursuing a pitiful pay rise of 1%. The government hoped that the new proposal would be satisfactory, but once again, it’s fallen short.

Major trade unions, which collectively represent over one million healthcare workers, have criticised the new figure. Although they recognise that it is an improvement from the previous 1%, they’ve rightly argued that 3% isn’t enough either.

A spokesperson for UNISON, Sara Gorton, said “the increase will fall short of expectations”, while a representative from the Royal College of Nursing labelled the proposal “bitterly disappointing”. Most unions are requesting a pay rise of at least 10%, with the highest request being 15%. After years of pay cuts, pay freezes and a pandemic, it’s time for a decent and fair pay rise for the NHS.

If the government truly appreciates the indispensable work of our health service, then their appreciation should be reflected in their actions. Although, as is the trend with successive Conservative governments, their words are not usually matched by meaningful policies.

Typically, the Prime Minister uses the NHS as a political pawn, providing rhetoric of caring for the health service when it is electorally advantageous. During the EU referendum, Johnson infamously posed next to a bus which implied that if the UK left the EU then there would be an extra £350 million of funding for the NHS. This was an early sign that he would use the health service as a political tool to achieve popularity and gain votes. Conservative policy demonstrates contempt for the NHS, rendering Johnson’s words meaningless.

Last year, when the Prime Minister was in intensive care with COVID-19, he experienced the hard work and dedication of the NHS firsthand. Yet, even after his life was saved by our health service, he has refused to reward staff with a fair pay rise.

One of the nurses who cared for Johnson during his illness has now quit, citing the dismal 1% proposal as a primary motivation for leaving the profession.

The current figure proposed by the government will push more healthcare workers into quitting the profession. If their pay does not reflect the sacrifices and dedication they have shown during the pandemic, then it is not surprising that many will feel undervalued by the government. The new figure of 3% fits into the trend we’ve seen for the last eleven years of under-rewarding NHS staff for their work.

According to the union Unite, since the Conservatives took office in 2010, pay for most NHS staff has fallen by as much as 19% in real terms due to pay cuts and pay freezes. This trend was corroborated by the think-tank Health Foundation, which found that since 2011, on average, most staff are worse off by £462 annually.

Where there have been pay increases, such as the currently proposed increase, they often fall beneath the inflation line. Therefore, when adjusted for inflation, most NHS incomes are decreasing in real terms.

This serves to increase dissatisfaction amongst NHS staff. Consequently, this leads to many leaving the health service. As reported by the Nursing Times, a learning disability nurse said that the new proposal has led to frustration which may “make more people leave”. A recent survey also found that 30% of nurses plan to leave their roles in the next 12 months. Therefore, when considering the fall of incomes over the past eleven years and considering the frustration many staff are feeling, it’s right for unions to call for a decent pay rise.

Another criticism of the proposal is that it does not cover all NHS staff. Many will be excluded, such as 61,000 junior doctors. If the government wants to recognise the invaluable work of the NHS, then a pay increase must be comprehensive and cover all staff.

All staff have made sacrifices during this pandemic, putting themselves onto the frontline to save peoples lives and keep our hospitals functioning. All workers have played a vital role, so it’s necessary to reward all workers.

The main rebuttal provided by the government is that it is not fiscally responsible to give a pay rise any higher than 3%, given that the economy in the past year has suffered due to the pandemic. This excuse is quite dubious though. If we can afford a new national yacht to the tune of £200 million, an increase in defence spending at around £16.5 billion, and spend millions of pounds on contracts for friends of the government, then we can reward our NHS with a fair pay rise.

In a time when many NHS staff are forced to use food banks, it’s beyond disappointing that the government refuses to fairly reward their work. It will be the responsibility of society to place pressure on the government to increase the current figure of 3%. With a reported 75% of the public supporting a pay rise above 10% for nursing staff, it’s a popular, and morally right, proposal to make. 

If we truly value our healthcare workers and the work they do, we should be united in calls for their pay to reflect the work they do and the sacrifices they have made, especially throughout the pandemic.

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