While the pandemic has led to record numbers of nurses and midwives working in the UK, the nursing regulator has warned that pressure on staff could lead to a significant exodus of frontline NHS staff.
With the government’s 1% pay offer being held up as the latest example of its lack of respect for the profession, five healthcare workers speak about why they are considering their positions.
‘I worry that the NHS is becoming a shadow of its former self’
Alistair Ritchie, 34, advanced nurse practitioner in intensive care, east Midlands
“The pandemic itself was dreadful. We were all working flat out, extra hours, with fewer staff per patient and spending all of our time in PPE.
“The pay offer is derisory. It’s like leaving a 50p tip for a £50 meal. My colleagues deserve the world. We’ve already suffered through a decade of below-inflation pay rises while expectations have only increased. What makes it worse is that a greater amount had already been agreed in the original pay deal. Are we worth less now than we were before the pandemic?
“I don’t think the public realise how badly we were already struggling before the pandemic. Money for training had been taken away and we were already short-staffed. Corners were being cut just to maintain a bare-bones service and morale was rock bottom. When the Covid surge came along, it broke a lot of staff.
“With so few good outcomes from the time spent at work, it has made me question how fulfilling nursing is as a career. With such obvious stress in the system, I worry that the NHS is becoming a shadow of its former self. There seems to be an expectation of paying minimal tax but receiving an all-singing, all-dancing health service.
“I will be moving on from my current job. A lot of my colleagues are and we aren’t able to replace them, even with less experienced nurses, let alone those with intensive care experience. For me it’s a combination of burnout, lack of fulfilment and exasperation at the sheer callousness of some in senior leadership.”
‘We’re understaffed and overwhelmed’
Kelly Hitchcock, 42, community mental health nurse, Derbyshire
“The focus has rightly been on nurses in Covid wards and ICU units where people have been dying in huge numbers, but community nurses like myself have absolutely had to keep nursing and seeing patients face to face.
“That’s meant going into houses where the entire household have tested positive, and while we have some PPE it’s just a disposable mask, apron and gloves, so there’s still a feeling that I’m on the frontlines putting myself and my family at risk.
“I know lots of other people who have left the profession because either the physical or mental pressure has become too much. There are plenty of opportunities for me to move into other work, so leaving has crossed my mind.
“Us nurses have watched the NHS be stripped bare before our eyes. We’re understaffed and overwhelmed, and that’s not just in the odd pocket of the country or at a particular trust, it’s universal across the NHS. Giving us a 1% pay rise when inflation is at 2% is an insult. They must think we’re stupid.”
‘The proposed pay deal is an insult couched with lies’
Elizabeth, 57, senior nurse specialist, Northamptonshire
“I was ill with Covid and was off work for almost a month. I’ve since developed long Covid. I’m still working but have no energy for a personal life. I feel I’ve given all I can to the NHS and the pandemic response has cemented my decision to leave my job and work in the third sector.
“The proposed pay deal is an insult couched with lies. That rise was meant to redress over 10 years of below-inflation pay deals that threw nurses towards food banks, especially those of us running single-income households.
“It’s especially insulting considering the cash lump sums paid to nurses in Scotland and Wales, and the Scots’ rejection of their 4% pay offer. It feels like the English government have chosen to alienate the nursing profession en masse.
“So, after the past 14 months of suffering, I’ll be taking my 39 years of clinical and leadership experience off to work in a charity where I am appreciated, heard and enabled to grow both personally and professionally. I have held my current NHS post for five years and have not experienced any of these things during that time.
“I have always been a nurse who advocates for my patients, and will continue to do so, but sadly this is impossible in the current climate where the NHS is held together by using nurses up and spitting them out when they crack under the weight of hard labour and emotional injury.”
‘Nurses have been treated like cannon fodder’
Suzie, 32, sexual health nurse, Brighton
“Nurses have been treated like cannon fodder during this pandemic. The NHS is such a beautiful thing that we should be so proud of, but it is so stretched, even at the best of times.
“I love my job in sexual health but if my only option was ward work I would be looking at leaving nursing altogether as I could never work for a private provider.
“I’m really pissed off about the 1% pay rise. We’ve lost so much money in real terms over the last decade. You don’t go into nursing for financial reward, but the government exploit this.
“I think the government is doing this deliberately so the NHS looks bad, then they can privatise us through the back door. What they don’t seem to understand is that the private sector need nurses too, and guess where they’re trained.”
‘It’s not just about giving people a clap’
Danny Leigh, radiographer, Cumbria
“A combination of the way the pandemic has been handled and years of chronic underinvestment has left me disillusioned. I am not only considering leaving my job, but also the country. I have a young family and I want a decent life for my children. I am not sure this country will offer them those opportunities.
“Radiographers aren’t the lowest earners in the world but even in good times we’d be offended by a 1% pay increase. It’s insulting and I’m not sure I can care for a government, public or a country that doesn’t care about me.
“It’s especially insulting when you think that they’re spending millions on new CT and MRI scanners. It might look good to commissioning groups or Matt Hancock but if they’re not careful there will be nobody to turn them on.
“We need a change in our mentality, it’s not just about giving people a clap. People need tangible rewards for going to work and while it’s nice to have got a higher level of respect, it ultimately boils down to whether or not people are fairly paid.”