After decades of targeted underfunding, the UK’s National Health Service is on the verge of collapse. Spiking inflation as a result of corporate profiteering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine War have only worsened the situation, as the UK’s 300,000 nurses face staffing shortages on top of a cost of living crisis. All these conditions have driven the Royal College of Nurses to strike. This video is part of an ongoing Workers of the World series about the cost of living crisis in Europe.
Producer: Alexander Morris
Videographer: Julia Schönheit, Alexander Morris
Video editor: Leo Erhardt
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Jacinth – Community Nurse: It’s like I’m working to pay bills…as soon as it goes in, it just goes back out.
Vicky – Pediatric Nurse: We go through life and death situations because that’s what we’re doing here, that is the bottom line.
Bert – Haematology Nurse: The NHS is already partly private. Healthcare can’t be for profit.
Narration: Nurses are striking for the first time in British history. Many nurses are suffering burn-out from the coronavirus pandemic, large numbers have already left, and those that stayed were rewarded for their Covid sacrifice with a pitiful pay increase by the government – which left them with little choice but to strike.
But this strike isn’t only about pay and conditions, it’s about the future of Britain’s national health service, and with that, preserving the principle of universally free healthcare. Years of austerity and deliberate underfunding by right wing governments has meant the highly trained professionals that operate this system have not had a proper pay rise in years, and many are struggling to live a comfortable life.
Ameera – Senior Nurse: I’m reading out comments from our group called ‘NHS Workers Say No’ campaign on Facebook. So one of them says, ‘I am sat in my car, absolutely broken. I have £0.06 left after paying all my bills, and I’ve just had to go to the food bank for the first time in my life. I’m beginning to wonder why I bother. How can I work the wards full-time and still struggle like this? It’s gotten so much worse in the last few months.
Narration: Ameera is a senior nurse working in London hospitals that has been organizing with colleagues and encouraging them to vote for strike action. The cost of living has been very strongly felt here, one of the world’s most expensive cities in the world’s fifth richest country.
Ameera – Senior Nurse: Doesn’t feel like the fifth richest country if a government can’t afford to pay nurses. Nurses work really hard. We’re not taking industrial action lightly. We have tried to negotiate with the government time and time again, but they’re just not prepared to listen.
We are talking about years of austerity, of the pay that we’ve lost, the pay cuts that we’ve had to deal with, the chronic understaffing, what we went through in the pandemic. You now have five more days to really discuss it – really try and negotiate – otherwise it’s a strike and that is it.
Narration: Nurses voted overwhelmingly to strike and with over 500,000 of them across the country, they have the power to bring the health service to a standstill.
What do we want? Fair pay!
When do we want it? Now!
Overworked and underpaid!
Clapping doesn’t pay the bills!
Narration: ‘Clapping doesn’t pay the bills’ is a reference to the politicians that took part in a weekly ‘clap for the NHS’ during lockdown but didn’t back up their support for NHS workers with a pay increase.
But beyond the excitement, and feelings of togetherness and solidarity, there was anger and also disbelief that they were forced to be out here, and not inside with their patients.
Say hey, ho, Rishi Sunak’s got to go!
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary: Today is about saying ‘enough is enough’. This government now needs to sit up, take stock, and listen to us.
They need to do that by paying the nurses a decent wage. They are not being greedy, they are asking for the 20% that has been taken out of their pay over the last decade to be put back in, and to make sure that they can continue to care for their patients.
Jacinth – Community Nurse: I love every bit of my job because I manage patients in the community and to get the positive feedback from them, that’s what makes it, and keeps me going. It’s not the money, if it was because of the money, I wouldn’t be in it. It’s because of the love of my job.
I pay over a thousand pounds a month: rent, water, gas, electricity. And I have family members back home who I have to take care of as well. So by the time…it’s like I’m working to pay bills. That’s how I see my monthly salary working; as soon as it goes in, it goes back out.
Some of the staff, even myself, you go home, sometimes you just sit and you start crying because sometimes you look into your cupboard, there’s less food in the cupboard. You can’t manage to really do what you need to do, and to buy what you need to buy to live a happy life. So it’s…it’s not a nice place to be at the moment. Yeah, I’m just feeling a bit tearful now, it’s not a nice place to be, honestly.
It’s really terrible.
Bert – Haematology Nurse: I hear about colleagues not being able to take care of ourselves before starting a 12-hour shift, it’s just unacceptable. What are we doing? I hear about people standing in food banks and asking for food packages from their trust In order to survive on, and feeding themselves. That makes me angry, that’s just, that’s not decent. I don’t think that’s fair, to keep on asking hardworking people to live in poverty. It saddens me… I just, I don’t understand that.
Narration: At the time of its birth, the National Health Service was a revolutionary idea. Socialists in the post-war Labour government came up with the idea of creating a world-class, universal healthcare system, free at the point of use.
More than 70 years later, the NHS has battled through numerous right-wing governments, 40 years of neoliberalism, and now a decade of austerity measures which has been particularly cruel to nursing.
‘Are we facing more austerity prime minister?’
Narration: One measure was to cut state-financed nursing degrees, which has led to a huge number of unfilled vacancies in the NHS, putting pressure on nurses to look after more patients and making conditions very tough.
Vicky – Pediatric Nurse: We go through life and death situations because that’s what we’re doing here, that is the bottom line. People are dying and people are incredibly unwell, and we’re there at the bedside 12 hours a day, 24/7, looking after them.
We are doing this for patients. We need the public to realize that we’re doing this for them.
What do we want? Patient safety. When do we want it? Now.
Safe staffing saves lives!
Vicky – Pediatric Nurse: I mean, this is it…safe staffing saves lives. Give us more nurses, pay us adequate pay, recognize us for what we do and…and make us feel like we’re actually appreciated. We have the worst days sometimes, but we also get so much reward from that and seeing children and their parents and their families, seeing them recover and get better – it’s just beyond anything anyone could imagine.
I have colleagues of mine who are in with me, working every day, stressed and overwhelmed, and close to burn out, if not already burnt out. And a lot of that is because there’s just not enough of us to do what we need to do and to do it safely.
Narration: How did the NHS get here?
The poor state of the service, after ideological underfunding over decades, is now being used as an argument for privatization. Of course, treatments are still free for those in need, but since the neoliberalization of Britain in the 1980s, governments of all stripes have been privatizing the NHS by stealth, and several private health providers are already operating within the NHS and making huge profits.
Richard Burgon MP — Labour Party: There are some things in life and in society more important than the pursuit of profit. And make no mistake, there are some who want to turn our NHS into an American style, insurance-based system, where they feel for your wallet before they feel for your pulse. You’re not going to let that happen, are you? No!
Bert – Hematology Nurse: The NHS is already partly private. I mean, loads of the services that are provided in a hospital, with people I work with, work for private companies: cleaners, catering staff, porters, imaging. It’s already there and that’s part of the issue.
Private companies are going for profit—healthcare can’t be for profit.
I really proudly stepped into the NHS and I chose not to go private because I think there, the system that Britain has turned out is quite admirable and quite generous and, yeah, it has problems as well, but they’re fixable.
It’s a decline if we can’t allow everyone to have access to that. And if this goes to private care and the American system, which is very clearly not working because they’re searching for another solution as well. So, why would we want to go into that?
Narration: A look at the privatized, insurance-based health systems that exist not only in the United States but across the planet, show how access to healthcare exposes the deep inequalities within countries.
Not to say Britain doesn’t have its own inequality problems, it does, but the NHS provides a constant equalizer for the poor, for new migrants, for the disabled, the elderly and anyone that comes through these doors.
Healthcare here is universal, and it could be a blueprint for every country. But as these nurses have told us, it’s under attack from politicians who think private healthcare companies will do a better job. And that’s what these nurses are striking for and fighting for.
Ameera – Senior Nurse: We will win. I’m very optimistic. It’s the future of the NHS. It will collapse because nurses are leaving on a daily basis. Patients are dying every day as a result of things being missed, so we need to do something about this now.
Jacinth – Community Nurse: 100%. We will win. And I hope that after the next strike – I would think that after today, we would need to strike again.
Bert – Hematology Nurse: I think the public can’t afford nurses not to win. I think if the public, if Britain wants a NHS system as it was, then we all need to fight for that and support us, because we are actually doing this for the public.
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