While the media have failed to report it widely, NHS workers have already demonstrated twice since July. Marches took place in 30 cities on 8 August, bringing together thousands of people. NHS employees held a minute’s silence for the 640 colleagues who have died during the Coronavirus crisis. Then on Saturday, 12 September hundreds of people also marched in London, Cardiff and Bristol to demand a 15% increase in their salaries. I went to march with them, as I truly believe they deserve it.
We are living in exceptional circumstances. Since the British government is operating through extremely confusing forms of communication, the UK has become one of the worst countries in terms of its response to the Covid-19 crisis. The main comfort and only response to a health threat of such a level remains the National Health Service itself.
Yet NHS employees keep sending us distress signals. They are overworked, exhausted and underpaid.
After the two days of protests on 8 August and 12 September, some workers are planning a third event for October. Others would even be ready to strike.
British public health workers are indeed on their knees. Lack of resources, lack of PPE, precarious and underpaid positions and staff shortages all contribute to this crisis. Since March, caregivers have only been granted the government’s appeals to us, the citizens, to applaud them every Thursday evening…
They are now claiming a 15% salary increase. And legitimately so.
Many marchers I talked to at the protests in Bristol confessed to being unable to pay their bills, thinking about quitting their job or fearing going to work because of the excessive workload.
I met Alex, a young nurse who has been the coordinator of the group ‘NHS Workers Say No’ in Bristol. “This government is directly responsible for the failures regarding personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, tracing application…” he told the crowd in his speech at the march. “They failed to protect NHS employees and now they are failing once again and refusing to reward us for our sacrifices.”
The salaries of these workers have not been increased in 10 years, while this year their work has been increased tenfold by the Covid-19 crisis. One of the consequences of the lack of investment is that the NHS has found it difficult to recruit: more than 53,000 nursing positions remain vacant across UK according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). In addition, his colleagues also lack protection, masks, gloves, equipment. This is what determined Alex to act.
“We are marching against pay inequalities,” he told me. “NHS workers have been side-lined by a recent increase in public sector workers’ pay. Nurses earn an average of £6,000 less per year than 10 years ago. So we are protesting against that and to ensure that the government gives us a raise, one that we deserve. We have sacrificed a lot during this pandemic and because of the consequences of the coronavirus. This is what we are marching for.”
He regularly walks through the city to distribute flyers warning about their situation. Together with friends, they are now a group of dozens of caregivers: doctors, nurses but also medical assistants, students, physiotherapists, therapists, and many other care professionals that enable the NHS to function. A medical assistant told me on Gloucester Road, a few days before the protests: “Some are barely paid the minimum wage and that is really not enough. Now, across the country, we’re a group of 83,000 people so they’re going to have to listen to us.”
Both believe that a strike is possible if the government refuses to listen to their cry of alarm, even if they want to avoid such a measure in the midst of a pandemic. “Of course the Royal College of Nurses is against strike action,” Alex adds, “because if we strike people are likely to suffer. Sick people will lack care, and families will not receive proper support. This is why protests like these are so important for us to be heard. Because we cannot strike the same way other workers can.”
The British public supports, by more than 75%, the idea of a pay rise, as confirmed by one of the protesters. “Because not all of them can leave their posts, for obvious reasons, they need other workers’ solidarity and support. I think there should be a big demonstration organised by all the unions against all the measures of the government, their repeated lies, the lack of resources for the NHS, especially as the support to the unemployed will expire this autumn and there will be an increase in unemployment… Unions must act.”
While campaigning for Brexit, Boris Johnson had promised to protect the NHS and increase its budget. Since then, the opposite has happened. And many doctors and nurses even fear the privatisation of several branches of the public health system as well as layoffs.
Shannon, who’s been a nurse for three years, spoke during the protests, and said that although she loves her job, she often ends her day in tears. “We cry because we are overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted. People ask me: can you cope? Well actually, no, not really, but there’s no staff, so we’re going to have to try. First-year nurses have to take on a lot of responsibility, to manage even when it is beyond their skills and confidence. We have to ask: as a society, what do we value? Don’t we deserve a 15% increase? Don’t we deserve to end the month without needing to borrow money, because our wages no longer compensate for inflation? We live in a country that can afford to help its citizens. We can afford to support the NHS.”
This is an illustration of the agony of the country’s public services.