Nurses strike: Greater Manchester hospital staff on picket line say dispute is ‘about the future of the NHS’

NHS employees taking part in strike action spoke of their concerns for attracting and retaining staff as nurses.

NHS staff at Greater Manchester hospitals taking part in the national nurses strike have spoken about why they have chosen to walkout and join the picket line for two days of strike action.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is leading industrial action on Wednesday (18 January) and Thursday (19 January) and three hospital trusts in Greater Manchester are involved.

Staff on Wednesday told ManchesterWorld the dispute over pay and patient safety concerns is ultimately about “the future of the NHS” and the ability of the health service to attract people to work as nurses and then retain them.

‘I’ve been a nurse for 35 years and I never thought this day would come’

This is the first time in the 106-year history of the RCN that it has balloted its members for strike action and led hospital staff to the picket line. The significance of the move was not lost on those outside Wigan Infirmary, part of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Foundation Trust.

Staff also spoke of their concerns that poor pay levels and ever-increasing workloads were making it more difficult for the NHS to keep nurses, which then has an effect on the quality of patient care.

Mark Oakley, an Admiral nurse specialising in dementia care, said: “I’ve been a nurse for 35 years and I never thought this day would come, but as the slogan says, enough is enough.

Mark Oakley on the picket line outside Wigan Infirmary

“I’m here because I’m coming towards the end my career but I want to champion what a fantastic role and career nursing is by standing up and getting the Government to actually listen to us. It’s about time we were respected a little more.

“The workload has got harder and harder and expectations have risen. I think Covid opened everybody’s eyes and raised the profile of nursing and medicine. It was great that we got a clap but that was soon forgotten and then we were told to carry on and get on with it.

“The NHS is suffering and it’s one of the best institutions that has ever been put together. If we don’t look after it and nurture it then it’s going to fall apart.

“I’m so proud to be a nurse, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to do anything else and I have the best job in the world. Hopefully this will help bring the schoolchildren and the newly-qualified nurses of today into the profession and keep them in the profession.”

‘The career they have dreamed of all their lives has turned into a nightmare’

Staff on the picket line in Wigan, where passing drivers regularly honked their vehicles’ spoke of the pressures the NHS is currently facing and the impact this is having on those working in the health service.

Michelle Blackburn, an RCN union steward and an advanced clinical practitioner working in the community, said: “I’m really proud that my colleagues have stood up and spoken to get their voices heard.

“We need to increase pay so we can recruit the next generation of nurses. If we can’t do that where is the NHS going to be in 10 years’ time? Pay levels are already slipping and we don’t want them to get any worse, and we don’t want these wait times. Our job is really busy, there’s a lot of pressure to do more and more with less and less staff.

“I want to give the best care to every patient but we need more staff. How are we going to recruit when nurses are earning £14 something an hour and they have to pay student debt off? It’s not going to entice anybody to come into the profession.

“This isn’t just about pay, it’s about the future of the NHS and the standards of patient care.”

Nursing staff taking part in strike action outside Wigan Infirmary

A staff nurse, who asked not to be named, said; “It’s heartbreaking that it has come to this. I never thought in 19 years of being nurse that it would come to this, but it has been coming for many years, since before the pandemic.

“It’s heartbreaking to see staff who are broken and wanting to leave the career they have dreamed of all their lives, but it has turned into a nightmare.

“This is ultimately about patient safety. We’re all patients and we all need the NHS. We can see what’s happening, the RCN has been campaigning for many years and we have not been listened to by the government. For the first time in our careers we are out on strike. Emergency and life-saving care is continuing but there is some disruption with elective surgeries and appointments being cancelled. We are sorry about that but it’s not just on strike days, it’s every day.

“We’re not able to give the care we want to give and that patients need and deserve. The Government says what we are asking for is unaffordable but I say we can’t afford not to invest in the nursing workforce. Everybody needs a nurse at some point. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

“I don’t think in any job you should have to cry when you’re on shift or going home.”

These sentiments were echoed on the picket line outside Tameside General Hospital, where nurses stressed that patient safety was among their top priorities.

Kat Sanderson, an emergency nurse practitioner and RCN picket line supervisor, said: “My personal reason for being on the picket line is for safety, safe staffing levels, safety for the patients.

“As you can hear, we do have a lot of public support. This strike is lawful, it’s safe, there are still nursing staff in the hospital looking after the patients who require chemotherapy, who require dialysis, emergency paediatric care, neonatal intensive care – they all have safe staffing levels today, we are not putting any patients at risk by being at the picket line.

“We’ve got no other option. The government isn’t listening. They need to be adult, they need to accept negligence – it is political negligence that we are having to stand here on this picket line in protest of the working conditions that we are facing, and the lack of pay and investment in the profession.”

Nursing staff on the picket line outside Tameside General Hospital. Credit: Manchester World

Working conditions are also the main concern for Lee-Ann Sands, an A&E staff nurse who only qualified 16 months ago. She described to Manchester World how staff shortages are negatively impacting both the patients and the nurses caring for them.

Lee-Ann said: “I’ve cried a handful of times and I don’t think in any job you should have to cry when you’re on shift or going home.

“There is a good team within A&E, but you can tell as soon as you go in for your huddle if you’re to be short-staffed. You could say that you know you’re going to be in for a bad day, you can already feel the pressure and you’re mentally preparing yourself for that day.

“You know that, as the day goes on, you’ve got a million and one things to do, and you’re scared that you’re not going to get it done, you’re scared that you can’t provide the time that you need to for each patient. You haven’t got the time to stand and chat with your patient, you’re scared that you can’t take a patient to the toilet. No one should have to deal with that, not as a nurse and not as a patient.”

She added: “The way Tameside has come together is absolutely amazing because we do get a lot of stick and we do get a lot of bad press, but I think everybody’s fantastic. Proud to be Tameside.”

Jayne Highcock, an anaesthetic and recovery sister and the local RCN steward for Tameside, initially joined the RCN because of its 106-year history of not striking, but now thinks that industrial action “is the only way we can get that message across,” especially having worked through the coronavirus pandemic.

She said: “A little clap wasn’t very much, I’m afraid, but that’s the reason why we’re doing it, just to say to the government: We’re not happy.”

Nursing staff on the picket line outside Tameside General Hospital. Credit: Manchester World

Jayne also agrees that staff shortages need to be addressed and that there needs to be more financial incentive for student nurses to join the profession.

She said: “We’re having to trust a lot of the agency to come in and support us. We have got now a delegation of international nurses that are in the trust, but that’s like putting in a sticking plaster to me, that’s not actually doing anything, because we retain them and then they’re going to go away somewhere to earn more money, but we will be losing them, and then we’re back to square one. We won’t have the nursing workforce.

“The patients are feeling sorry because they’re not getting the care that they need, and this is what we’re doing it for, to get that care. We care, that’s the point of nurses. We’re not here to strike, we’re here to care.

RCN chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen was in Greater Manchester visiting picket lines and speaking to striking nurses on Wednesday morning.