Don’t use nurses as fodder in the NHS war

Increasing numbers of nurses are leaving the NHS, choosing to take jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets instead. That’s according to NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson, who is responsible for most NHS hospital, mental-health and ambulance trusts in England. He said on Monday that nurses’ pay is so poor – pay rises have been capped at one per cent in recent years – and their working conditions so stressful that many are simply giving up. Hopson’s intervention follows claims by the Royal College of Nursing that more and more nurses are relying on foodbanks to get by.

But the problem with the NHS isn’t as black and white as it seems. Whether or not nurses are so underpaid that they’re actually going hungry, or are so demoralised they’d rather work in a supermarket, it is true that there is a crisis in the NHS. Prime minister Theresa May’s response to Copson – pointing out that there are ‘more doctors, more nurses, more midwives’ in the NHS than ever before – did nothing to address the fact that there still aren’t enough, and that the Tories are starving them of funding. Of course nurses should be paid more – they do an incredibly important job. And despite May’s cheery outlook, the NHS needs more funding to meet the increased demand on services from an ageing population, exacerbated by service dysfunction and the cuts to social care.

Solving the NHS crisis won’t be as straightforward as simply raising taxes, but without a greater funding commitment it won’t be possible to implement the changes needed to put things right.

In response to Hopson, May said that ‘you can only put extra funding into the NHS with a strong economy’. It was, of course, a jab at Jeremy Corbyn. But the problem is that the Tories have not produced a strong economy. This is why they’ve pursued public-sector cuts as part of their obsession with slashing the deficit. They’ve been incapable of fostering real growth.

But rather than challenging the government’s cuts to the NHS on economic grounds – arguing for more growth as a means to more funding, and a much bigger overhaul of the care system – the Labour Party and health-sector lobbyists have opted for emotive electioneering. They have framed the discussion about the NHS as a war between angelic nurses and cruel austerity.

Such cynical tactics won’t work. Instead of trying to shame the government with spin about impoverished nurses, critics would do better to challenge the NHS love-in, and ask if this aged institution is fit for purpose. The crisis in the NHS isn’t just about funding and wages. It is about the way that the NHS is run. Given the targets it is burdened with, you would think its purpose is to populate spreadsheets with agreeable figures rather than make the sick well again. It is this culture that is responsible for driving down morale, and undermining the sense of public duty among staff.

Groups that represent health workers should be offering up solutions as to how the NHS should be run better, rather than leaving it to the NHS’s target-obsessed managers. Instead of holding them up as objects of pity, why not urge nurses to take inspiration from the junior doctors, and lay down their bedpans until they win a better deal from the Department of Health?

Dave Clements is a writer, public servant and convenor of the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum

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