Nicola Biggerstaff – 11 November 2022
This week, the Royal College of Nursing announced its first ever strike action over pay and conditions following a ballot of its members in health and social care. After demanding a pay rise of 5% above inflation, they have rejected the government’s offer of 4% alone. While the specific number of its 300,000 members who voted in favour has not been revealed, if the publicly available numbers of other striking sectors is anything to go by, such as the 94% of EIS members who rejected the most recent pay offer for teachers, it can be assumed that the numbers will be significant. It goes without saying that requesting a rise in pay to keep you out of poverty – however drastic that may be – is nowhere near as unreasonable as critics and right-wing commentators make it out to be.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, a real terms wage rise is, in my opinion, a modest ask. They put their lives on the line to keep us alive in the last two years, separated from their own families to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In return, they get some meagre applause and an insulting, real terms pay cut of 6% after inflation. They have saved countless lives and will continue to facilitate the nation’s healing in the years to come. If I could fund the wage rise myself with a Euromillions win and my left kidney, I wouldn’t give it a second thought.
And yet, in one of the few sectors where getting ‘back to normal’ will never have the same meaning as before the pandemic, frontline healthcare staff are being expected to accept the 2019 status quo, as if none of this ever happened, as if the economic forecasts won’t have fatal consequences for those in need.
The Scottish Government’s Winter Resilience Overview, their contingency plan for the winter months, is lacking to say the least. They have so far proposed every measurement possible to retain and expand the workforce, with the exception of raising pay for healthcare workers. Instead, they are asking some professionals to return from retirement, removing financial costs of PVG checks for new employees, and facilitating the part time paid employment of students looking for a graduate or future career in the NHS. Other measures like increased access to psychological support services were also proposed, but no mention of the fair pay they deserve. Don’t they realise the solution to their problems, the staffing shortages and the impending winter crisis to name a few, is just… a wage rise?
The vast improvement to the quality of life for healthcare workers as a result of fair pay for fair work will see rates of financial difficulties as well as mental and physical ill health collapse as healthcare workers would be able to afford to live, to heat their homes, and eat high quality meals without relying on food banks to energise them for the demanding work which will be required of them once again in the coming months. They wouldn’t have to worry about being able to afford mortgage or rent payments, they’d be able to buy presents for their families in the winter holidays as they reconnect after so much time apart. It’s the least the government can do for them considering the infrastructure they rely upon to provide these services is crumbling around them.
Shocking statistics this week revealed that Accident and Emergency waiting times in Scotland are currently the worst on record, with thousands waiting eight to twelve hours or more to be seen. This should be one of the top priorities for improvement in our government, and yet the Winter Resilience Overview only seems to want to incentivise patients to seek alternatives to emergency care, such as online triaging while remaining at home. Alternatives which, thanks to almost fifteen years of financial mismanagement, have disappeared leaving many patients and service users with no choice but to turn up at their local A&E.
I saw the devastating impact of this for myself. A few weeks ago, I was informed of how this played out at my local hospital following a health scare in the family. They spent over 24 hours in Accident and Emergency, due to a shortage of beds in Emergency Care, with 10 more ambulances queued outside full of other vulnerable people in need of urgent medical attention. And that was just the start. Over the next few days, the ambulance queues created such havoc that some were even blocking entry to certain access points and parking spaces. In the time we spent visiting, this did not ease at any point.
If our emergency medical access is so lacking that the infrastructure can’t handle it now, with Covid cases and hospital admissions as a result now falling, what hope is there for us in the depths of winter, when more people than ever will be suffering the effects of the cold? What will happen in the next pandemic?
Just two weeks ago, sources claim that University Hospital Wishaw (formerly Wishaw General) was blocked from declaring a major incident in light of the numbers waiting to be admitted and waiting in their A&E department. While the Scottish Government have denied this, reiterating that the responsibility for this lies with the local health board, it speaks volumes and paints a worrying picture for the state of our services in the coming months.
In their response to the National Care Service Bill Consultation, the Scottish Ambulance Service highlights that Emergency healthcare services, being the easiest point of access for treatment, are often misused by the most vulnerable people. While the target of aiming service users away from emergency access is a legitimate issue which should be addressed, emphasising preventative measures will only work if said measures are fully funded which, as previously mentioned, they are not.
This is just one of a number of healthcare failings in Scotland under this current government. Everything seems to be stagnating or getting worse, and no one appears to be motivated enough to invest in the long term solutions. Waiting lists, GP appointments, life expectancy. You name it, it hasn’t improved as promised. What could possibly be more important than our nation’s health?
Here at Common Weal, we have the solution. The bureaucratic nightmare masquerading as our health service needs to change, and it needs to change now before it’s too late. In collaboration with our health working group, we have produced our vision of a fully funded and effective healthcare service as part of our latest work, Sorted: A Handbook for a Better Scotland. To pre-order your copy, have a look at the options available on our Crowdfunder.