By Mike Forster, National Chair, Health Campaigns Together (personal capacity) and Socialist Alternative Political Committee – ISA in England & Wales

The pitiful submission by the Tories of a 1% increase for all NHS staff  to the Pay Review Board is a huge kick in the teeth to all those frontline workers. The government’s hypocritical excuse for the award is that they cannot afford it. This jaw dropping assertion has left even media commentators agog at the Tories’ complete underestimation of the mood in the workplace and the wider public. As soon as the information was made public on March 6th, nurses’ social media posts began to hum with fury and rage, as well as understandable despair. Sunak had just delivered a budget which had committed to spend another £65bn in the next 4 months and then claimed there was no money left!

NHS staff are rightly pointing to the wasted £22bn doled out to the government’s private sector mates who have completely failed to provide the promised ‘world class track, test and trace service’.  Likewise the ‘lost’ £12bn which was allocated to other private sector companies to provide PPE. And what about the pay increases MP’s have had over the last 10 years? Their pay has gone up from £66,396 to a whopping £81,932 whilst nurses’ pay has dropped by an average of 7.4%. A recent survey of NHS staff found that 97% did not trust the Tories with the NHS.

Quite right too! Hidden in the small print of the budget is a real terms cut to NHS funding over the next year. Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, claims the NHS is set to lose £30.1bn from frontline NHS services. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has identified a cut of £16bn from public services over the next year in the budget small print. Whatever the true figure, NHS staff cannot afford what in reality will be a pay cut, amounting to an average increase of £3.60 per week for a nurse!  As one nurse commented on social media, that will cover around one third of the 5% council tax increase about to drop through our letter boxes.

Union leaders have queued up to condemn the proposal from Unison to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and British Medical Association (BMA). Starmer has called for an improved pay award for NHS staff. He must back up these platitudes with full support for industrial action. Public opinion will come behind the clamour for the Tories to change their mind. The NHS, and its staff, are wholly responsible for ensuring the vaccine is being successfully delivered. Workers have worked tirelessly, and often in their own time because they understand the importance of mass vaccination, to ensure that so far over 20 million have been injected.  This huge sacrifice has to be properly rewarded, not with applause, but with better pay and working conditions.

In reality, the 1% figure came from the government’s submission to the so-called ‘independent’ Pay Review Body (PRB) which has been considering NHS pay for the last 6 months. It was due to report on its findings in February, but that was then put back to May. Any pay awards are actually due in April so further delay has been built into the system. All NHS staff are acutely aware of how pay has fallen behind over the last 10 years of austerity.  In reality, it has fallen in real and relative terms since 2010, which is why unions have mostly fallen in behind the demand for a 15% pay increase. A huge campaign around the 15 Now demand has sprung up on social media with the ‘Nurses United’ and the ‘NHS Workers Say NO!’ Facebook pages attracting over 100,000 followers. They have been flooding into the unions to demand action around pay and were instrumental in developing the demand for 15%.

The current situation is not unlike the mood of education staff in January when they forced the governments’ and the unions’ hands by refusing to return to unsafe schools. It is now imperative that preparation for action gets underway now. Unions had been waiting for the outcome of the PRB in May but enough is enough! The Tories have played their hand and their intent is very clear. Rank and file NHS staff need immediate fighting leadership.  

The RCN has warned that thousands are contemplating leaving the NHS. Frontline staff report very high levels of exhaustion and despair, some even suffering from PTSD. It is critical that the mood of anger is channelled into an immediate and effective campaign for the full 15%, backed up with industrial action. This must include the immediate declaration of a dispute with the Tories and coordinated industrial action ballots. Campaign groups like Keep our NHS Public and Health Campaigns Together must come alongside staff and unions to build up public support. Jonnson has performed over 20 u-turns when confronted by mass anger, and they can be forced back again. A pay victory for NHS staff can galvanise the much needed fightback for better pay and conditions for workers everywhere. We cannot allow the Tories to heap the cost of this pandemic onto our backs, and especially not frontline NHS staff who have literally given their lives during this crisis.

Socialist Alternative is fighting for:

  • The full 15% now for all NHS staff
  • For coordinated industrial action across the entire sector
  • For a mass campaign of public support, including days of action in the build up to strike action
  • Proper public funding for the NHS
  • Drive out the privateers and bring back all the NHS under public control
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