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UK nurses’ vote to strike is meant to ‘save the NHS’, supporters say

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LONDON — Leena Myllynen struggled so often to pay her rent and other bills while working as a nurse in a British hospital that she considered quitting the profession altogether.

Between a pandemic that left hospitals understaffed and record inflation that slashed the value of her salary, “I was completely exhausted and just demoralized,” she told the Washington Post. “I was never able to make it to payday, even when I worked overtime,” the 32-year-old nurse said.

That’s why she left Britain’s taxpayer-funded National Health Service – a darling british institution and one of the largest employers in the world. It is also why, she says, many nurses across Britain voted this month to strike for the first time in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the largest nurses union in the country. The strike is expected before the end of the year.

The pandemic that has overwhelmed medical services around the world has not spared the NHS, which has a backlog of millions of patients awaiting treatment for a wide range of illnesses. And the unprecedented pressures to funding in the NHS after the pandemic affected access to healthcare, even for some medical workers.

When Myllynen’s partner, an NHS doctor, suffered from severe pneumonia and blood clotting, they went from one emergency room to another in search of a hospital bed, said she declared. “He ended up sleeping on the floor [of an emergency room] for 12 hours” because of the lack of beds, she recalls.

“The understaffing resulting from poor wages and conditions affects us all,” added Myllynen. “We are also patients.”

Britain is experiencing its highest inflation rate in 41 years and is cutting funding for the healthcare system. The forecasts of a long recession and soaring energy prices have led warnings that people could see “the biggest drop in household incomes in generations,” as Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said.

The nurses’ union, which has hundreds of thousands of members, says the pay problem has exacerbated staff shortages and jeopardized patient safety. According to a study commissioned by the MRCthe salary of an experienced nurse tear down in real terms by at least 20% since 2010 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Although British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak describe nurses’ demand for a salary increase of nearly 17%, or 5% above inflation as “unaffordable”, he said, this week’s talks between the health secretary and union leaders would help those involved “see how we can fix this”. Health officials are hoping for a deal to avert a wave of walkouts this winter.

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British government officials say a paid offer made in July, with an average increase of 4.75% for nurses in England next year, was in line with recommendations from an independent NHS pay review body.

The plan would raise the average base salary of nurses from around $42,000 in March 2022 to almost $44,000, according to the government, which argues that bigger increases would worsen inflation and increase the country’s debt.

But, while the cost of living crisis affects everyone, the ambulances, paramedics and the cleaners are also vote by joining the nurses in a strike.

Leanne Patrick, a gender-based violence nurse for the NHS in Scotland, said she voted for the nurses’ strike not for herself but for the challenges she sees in the predominantly female profession. The mother-of-two said nurses were not paid fairly for their skills or for the level of risk they handle, and she said she hoped the walkout would get their voices heard.

The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have resulted in a ‘staff haemorrhage’ from healthcare facilities after years of below-inflation wage increases and caused “kind of a tipping point,” Patrick told the Post.

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She said many nurses supported the strike because “we know it…affects us, not only us, but other nurses and ultimately patient care. »

When staffing shortages prevent nurses from providing “safe levels of care,” Patrick said, nurses find themselves “going home worrying about patients at the end of the day.”

And when nurses also feel undervalued, she added, “it’s no surprise to think that after all this grief,” they’re thinking, “Can I do something a lot less stressful. .. for a similar salary?”

Since leaving the NHS last year, Myllynen, who works in the northern English city of Leeds, has moved to a role as a private sector nurse at a charity, she therefore did not participate in the NCR vote. But she said she supports the decision, which she described as “the last option”, and hopes it helps resolve a problem she says has been building up for years.

“This strike is not selfish; this is about saving the NHS,” she said. “…it’s about our own health care in the future.”