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Young NHS nurses tell us why they’re going on strike

‘We’re exhausted, we’re worn down, we have nothing left to give. Something needs to change’

Ciara, 28, is a nurse. She set out to be a nurse for the reasons most people do – she’s naturally kind and compassionate, and wanted to channel this innate ability and desire to help others into her career. But there are moments, she tells Dazed, when she doesn’t feel like she’s really doing the job she set out to do.

There was one time when she had to walk past a woman who’d received a terminal cancer diagnosis. “She was sobbing on her bed – with nobody there. And I couldn’t go to her and support her because I had some chemotherapy to do, and there was no one else to do it,” she says. “How, as a human being, can you just leave someone who’s just been told they’re going to die? Those kinds of situations, they stick with you. Moments like that, I just think, god... I’m not doing the job that I want to do – that I love.”

Ciara’s story here is harrowing, but unfortunately, it’s not unusual. Data shows that the NHS is chronically understaffed, leading to nurses like Ciara being overstretched and unable to deliver much in the way of holistic care. The latest NHS Digital vacancy statistics show that for the Registered Nursing staff group alone, there was a vacancy rate of 11.8 per cent. It’s a vicious cycle: the worse understaffing gets, the higher the pressure on nurses. And the higher the pressure on nurses, the more nurses burn out and leave, which in turn exacerbates the understaffing issue.

One thing that could fix this, though, is better pay, which would help attract and retain nurses and allow them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. And there’s a chance better pay is on the horizon – as for the first time ever, nurses have voted to stage strikes over pay and conditions across the UK.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced today (November 25) that its members will stage national strikes on 15 and 20 December. The industrial action is expected to last for 12 hours on both days – most likely between 8am and 8pm. Emergency care will still be staffed, but other services will have to be scaled back at many UK hospitals where nurses voted to strike. The action is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the next six months by other NHS staff. While around 2,500 nurses staged a historic and successful strike back in 1988, this is the first time in the RCN’s 106-year history that it has instigated a statutory ballot of its members across all the countries of the UK about industrial action.

The RCN said it had decided to go ahead with the strike and confirmed the dates after the UK government turned down its offer of negotiations as an alternative to industrial action. 

Sophie*, 30, is another nurse who will be striking. Like Ciara, Sophie has had a difficult time working in the NHS recently. “Every day is a struggle. The amount of pressure I am currently under is overwhelming,” she tells me. “I often wonder whether I should leave the NHS for my own wellbeing – however it is the patients that keep me there and the guilt of going that makes me stay.” She stresses that nursing is still “[her] world, [her] passion, and [her] vocation”, but the present situation is making her position unsustainable. “Many of my colleagues feel the same – we do this job because we care. However, we are limited by the current circumstances. There is no room to go above and beyond because we are trying to survive each day, doing what we can.”

“We’re like ducks – paddling underwater while keeping up a calm front. But we can’t keep up this calm front any longer” – Ciara

“We’re like ducks – paddling underwater while keeping up a calm front. But we can’t keep up this calm front any longer,” Ciara adds. “We’re exhausted, we’re worn down, we have nothing left to give. Something needs to change.”

It’s no surprise that nurses have reached breaking point. In March 2021, the government proposed that health workers receive a pitiful one per cent pay rise – a suggestion that was rightly panned as insulting. It was especially affronting following the vital and selfless role that nurses played during the COVID-19 pandemic; it soon became clear that the government’s insistence that we “protect the NHS” and “clap for carers” throughout lockdown were nothing but banal platitudes.

After some pushback, the rise was raised to three per cent, and then 4.5 per cent this year. But this still is far from an appropriate sum, especially given that inflation is running at 10.1 per cent. Now, the RCN is asking for a 17.6 per cent pay boost. Nurses have a strong case for upping their wages: many take on extra duties to cope with the chronic NHS staff shortage, causing burnout and torpedoing morale. Even more disturbingly, rising numbers of nurses are using food banks – a testament to how broken the system is.

“I think the 4.5 per cent rise is underwhelming. MPs have yearly increases well above this,” Sophie says. She’s right – since 2010, MPs’ pay has increased by 28 per cent, while research has found that on average nurses’ pay has fallen by eight per cent since 2010. “They did not act quickly enough in care homes, they didn’t provide the right amount of PPE, they wasted significant amounts of money on Track and Trace, and then went to parties and broke lockdown rules. Meanwhile, nurses were putting their lives on the line.”

A criticism often levelled at nurses by right-wing pundits is often that nurses are ‘greedy’ and that a pay rise isn’t necessary. But this is a reductive way of looking at the situation: it’s not just about pay, it’s about conditions and the quality of care that nurses are able to provide. Case in point: there are currently seven million people on waiting lists, and that’s a number which is expected to grow given the shortage of 50,000 nurses. We’ve lost 7,000 mental health nurses since 2009, despite demand for mental health care services soaring. And, of course, there are countless other stories like Ciara’s. Once wages are upped, understaffing can be tackled, and issues like these can finally be addressed.

This is why, ultimately, the strike is such welcome news – for both patients and nurses. As Sophie says: “I voted to strike because I feel people are not receiving the quality of care they are entitled to. I have a duty of care to stand up, be an agent of change and make a difference now.”

*Name has been changed 

This article was originally published on 11 November and updated on 25 November.