Nurse Efe Obiakor photographed on July 7, in Harrow, London.
Black nurses face two pandemics
04:12 - Source: CNN
London CNN  — 

Hundreds of thousands of UK public sector workers are getting a pay rise in recognition of their work during the coronavirus pandemic – but nurses have been left empty handed.

The UK government announced Tuesday that it will give above-inflation pay rises to 900,000 public workers – including teachers, police officers, doctors and dentists, and senior civil servants.

Teachers will get the highest rise, at 3.1%, while doctors can expect a 2.8% hike, the government said. It added that the two groups will get the biggest pay hikes in recognition of “their efforts on the frontline during the battle against Covid-19.”

In its announcement, the government said nurses and other health care workers had been excluded from the pay rises, because their salaries have already been boosted under a three-year deal agreed in 2018. Under that agreement, nurses’ pay was set to rise annually for three years until 2021.

That argument did not go down well with nurses and their supporters.

Laura Duffell, a matron at King’s College Hospital in London, said she and her colleagues had been left in shock at Tuesday’s announcement that nurses would not be awarded a rise.

“If anything, we thought we’d be on top of the list,” she said. “You can feel the severe disappointment … it’s almost proving to us that we’re not as appreciated as we had hoped.”

Pay caps and freezes

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), a nurses’ trade union, said that telling nurses to “wait until next year,” when the current pay deal expires, is not acceptable. “Nursing staff deserve a fair pay rise now,” the union said in a statement.

The RCN and other healthcare workers’ unions sent an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his treasury chief Rishi Sunak on July 3, demanding more money for nurses. The letter said that the deal agreed in 2018 was “a start, after years of pay capping and freezes, but did not restore the value lost over a longer period. More must now be done.”

The RCN has also pointed out that while there have been some pay increases, wages in nursing are still lower in real terms than they were in 2010. That’s because most public sector wages were frozen or capped at 1% increases between 2010 and 2017 as part of the government’s austerity program. The way the 2018 agreement was structured meant that not all nurses got a pay rise in real terms – those on the lowest salaries saw the biggest increases, while more senior nurses got less.

“My pay this year is less than my pay last year, I’m getting approximately, £50 ($64) a month less in my pocket every month,” Duffell said. The argument that nurses already got higher pay, she said, was “insulting.”

“It just makes us feel like they think we’re stupid,” she said. “And I can’t believe that they actually think nurses are going to put up with this for much longer.”

“They’ve been trading on our good faith and compassion for years and years and years, and I don’t know how much more of it they think that we can take before we will turn around and say … ‘We’re not going to put up with this, I can get a much better salary doing something that’s far less stressful that isn’t going to give me PTSD,’” she added.

Clap for carers

Many nurses and their supporters also complained that the government had encouraged the public to step out of their homes and applaud for health care workers every Thursday during the peak of the pandemic, but had stopped short of delivering an actual pay rise.

“The clapping that keeps being referred to as a show of the appreciation for nurses in the NHS, I think it has almost left a really bitter taste in people’s mouths now,” Duffell said.

“It’s almost like, well, that’s what you deserve, you know, here you go, have a nice clap. That’s obviously gonna put food on your table … It’s gonna make up to the fact that you’re working 90-hour weeks when actually you’re not paid to do so. That’s gonna make up for … all the trauma that you’ve endured over the last three months, of seeing multiple people pass away over [the] space of one shift,” she added.

The unions have expressed similar sentiments. “The applause and kind words were a short-term morale boost for many health workers, but now it is time to begin these pay discussions without delay,” they said in their open letter.

Nurses’ salaries start at just below £25,000 ($30,000) a year in the UK. That’s about £5,000 ($6,000) below the country’s median salary. With more experience, pay for most can rise to around £37,000 a year.

The RCN says low pay is a major reason why many nurses choose to leave the profession. Last week, it released the findings of a survey of 42,000 nurses, revealing that 36% of them were considering quitting – a big jump from 27% a year ago.

The union said that of those thinking of leaving, 61% said pay was a factor, while 44% said they were considering quitting because of the way they were treated during the pandemic. It said 73% of those questioned said higher pay would make them feel more valued.

There are currently around 50,000 nursing vacancies across the UK, according to the RCN.