Why aren’t we talking about Nursing?

It’s difficult to imagine our healthcare system without Nurses, particularly after the past few years of the COVID-19 pandemic. We all stood on our doorsteps back in 2020 and clapped for the NHS staff on the frontline, putting health and care first, yet so quickly ‘the clap turned to a slap’ and consciousness of the vital work faded. Nursing is an essential service, part of the fabric of healthcare that no one realises they need until suddenly you do.

As a challenge, how much do you think about nursing? I would imagine unless you know someone who is a registered nurse, probably not much. Does the word nurse make you think of someone working on a hospital ward, or do you recognise that nurses are present across all spheres of society, in general practice, prisons, industry, the armed forces, research and academia, schools, local and national government to name just a few.

The previous Health Secretary’s under-developed ‘ABCD’ plan for the NHS didn’t even mention nursing, it doesn’t feature highly on the government agenda or to be honest in policy discussions. There is little understanding across Government and perhaps society of the complex education and skills developed to be an effective nurse, and yet this is the largest profession within the health service, the backbone of the NHS.

The problems within nursing aren’t just something to talk about, they are critical to the health and wellbeing of our nation and our economy and when there are shortages of registered nurses, research directly links this with negative impacts on patient safety. Public health expert Professor Sir Michael Marmot, in 2021 said nursing staff could influence the government to tackle health inequality and that “Nursing staff are the most trusted group of people in Britain, and rightly so.” “From that position of trust, if nurses speak up about food insecurity, housing, decent public services, they will be listened to. As a group, nursing staff can play a very important role in changing society.”

This week the Royal College of Nursing released research by London Economics which found that salaries of NHS Agenda for Change nursing staff have not kept up with inflation over the last decade.

The analysis shows that an experienced nurse’s salary has fallen 20% in real terms since 2010, meaning that nursing staff are effectively working one day a week for free, based on a five-day working week. This reduction, at a time of a cost-of-living crisis, means nursing staff are facing incredible financial hardship and many hospitals have set up food banks to feed their own staff. The very people who can help to tackle health inequality, are themselves impacted by it.

Many Nurses are now being balloted for industrial action, following sustained below inflation pay awards over the past 12 years. Low pay is driving chronic understaffing and it puts patient safety at risk as well as leaving the remaining nursing staff, overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. We should be concerned by the lack of coverage of nursing in Government and as Liberal Democrats, we should be raising the issue, indeed our constitution which states public services of the highest quality, surely demands that we do.

Liberal Democrats passed a motion supporting NHS Staff in March 2021, now we need to be supporting and advocating for nursing and our wider NHS and recognising the expertise and value they bring to healthcare, because we all will need nursing at some point in our lives, and a world with acute nursing shortages and the impact that will cause on us individually and as a society, is a price too high to pay.

* Ellen Nicholson is a Registered Nurse, Borough Councillor in Woking, portfolio holder and member of the executive, directly elected member of the Liberal Democrats Health and Care Association executive, and member of the South East regional board.