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Members of the Royal College of Nursing and other NHS staff gather outside St Thomas' Hospital on February 6, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. For the first time since the beginning of the movement, ambulance workers and nurses walk out together over pay. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Unsafe staffing ratios pushes UK and Australian nurses ‘into a corner’

British nurses are staging a 48-hour strike and 'won't back down' in a bitter row with the government over wages and nurse-to-patient ratios.

Members of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) have walked off their jobs six times since December 2022 to push for a pay rise of 19 per cent to meet the rising living costs.

The union's repeated strike actions has affected over a 100,000 appointments and treatments.

Since the start of 2022, Australian and British nurses have been calling for safer nurse-to-patient ratios amid a rapidly growing workforce shortage.

The Australian NSW Nursing and Midwifery Association (NSWNMA) led four state-wide strikes last year which prompted talks with the government to address the workforce crisis.

UNSW Business School lecturer Dr Greig Taylor, who moved from the UK to Sydney four years ago, said the living and working pressures in both countries could lead to more strikes in the future.

"Both NSW and the UK government have responded somewhat muted and stubborn to the pleas of nurses," Taylor said.

"But any nurse on strike shows the gravity of the situation.

"It shows they feel forced into a corner and see no other way to recourse with the government aside from industrial action."

Earlier this month, members of the British nursing union announced they would hold its most extensive strike in the 75-year history of the National Health Service (NHS).

The NHS board makes wage decisions similar to Australia's Fair Work Commission (FWC).

However, the NHS is solely responsible for healthcare workers, whereas the FWC rules over most professions.

British nurses under the NHS are planning a two-day strike of twelve hours each from the 1st of March in an attempt to finally break the headlock with ministers over pay.

Contrary to previous strikes, this action will include nurses working in intensive care units, cancer care and emergency departments, with an expected turnout of 12,000 workers.

The announcement has raised the alarm with senior NHS board members, warning the impact on patients would be 'significant.'

The pressure on the government was further emphasised when young British doctors announced this morning that they were preparing for a 72-hour strike in March.

RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen, said the union would make 'a priority of honouring its legal obligation not to endanger life.'

"These strikes will not just run for longer and involve more people but will leave no area of the NHS unaffected," Cullen said in a statement.

"I will do whatever I can to ensure patient safety is protected.

"But we're not backing down – it's time to pay nursing staff fairly."

The ANMF expressed solidarity with the UK nurses on Facebook, agreeing that their work must be valued appropriately. 

Taylor said there's 'quite a gulf' between what nurses are asking for and what the government is willing to offer through the NHS pay review board.

In July 2022, the NHS published a review recommending a pay rise of roughly £1,400, worth about 4 per cent for nurses.

"It looks like the British nursing union is willing to be flexible and negotiate," he said.

"Unfortunately, the government is sticking to its guns, hiding behind the NHS pay review, arguing that they could only afford 4 per cent."

Yet, last week, the Welsh government agreed to a 7 per cent pay rise for nurses, after which the industrial action was called off.

The RCN said they'd also be willing to suspend strikes if the government agreed to a 7 per cent wage raise in the first year.

Taylor said that nurses wondered why the Welsh government could afford a pay rise but not the British government despite being subject to the same external pressures, such as Brexit.

"Let's not forget that this 7 per cent pay rise probably isn't even keeping up with inflation this year," he said.

"They're not asking for some sort of mega-blockbuster pay rise – they're just asking to get a real pay cost in inflation with service rise."

The overall cost of living in the UK became 10 per cent more expensive over the past twelve months.

In Australia, the CPI grew by 7.8 per cent over the same period.

"Rising inflation, energy and grocery bill rises, and wage freezes that have fallen behind the CPI over the last decade or more have led to an explosion in wage claims," Taylor said.

"The cost of living in the UK and Australia look the same but, comparatively, British nurses are paid less than those in NSW."

A nurse is paid roughly 58 per cent more in Australia than in the UK.

The wage of a newly qualified Band 5 NHS nurse in the UK is £27,055, whereas Australian starting nurses are paid $77,000 (or £44,000) per annum.

Aside from financial stress on the British government due to Brexit and Covid, Taylor said that systematic differences in healthcare provision play a crucial role in whether nurses receive a pay rise.

"The British government in charge is not dissimilar to the Australian government in so far that its pro-privatisation and anti-state involvement attitude toward public assets," Taylor said.

The NHS was set up after WWII so that every person, regardless of socioeconomic status, should be provided for.

Whereas Australians contribute to receive medical services, the UK health sector is completely funded by the government-led NHS through taxation.

"The public opinion is still very pro-NHS," Taylor said.

"But the current British government would like to see it privatised.

"So, it's deliberately underfunding the NHS so that waiting lists get so long and service provision becomes so stretched that the public will eventually clamour for more private involvement.

"Which is also affecting whether nurses will receive a pay rise."

The UK government insisted it would not re-examine the NHS pay for this year after receiving word of RCN's plans for a 48-hour strike.

Nevertheless, Taylor said that the government's 'tough attitude' would unlikely result in nurses backing down.

"There's a lot of strong feelings on the nurse's side from the public and the press.

"This isn't a gang of militants we're talking about here – these are nurses with a small fee who are usually unwilling to go on strike.

"Everything is on the nurse's side. They're not abdicating their duties to their patients, but they are getting tougher on the government and rightfully so."

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