Striking nurses blame Brexit for NHS crisis and call for mass walkout

Nurses strike: RCN members at St Thomas’ Hospital in London

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Striking nurses say that Brexit is “definitely” part of the reason they have walked off their wards and onto picket lines. Several nurses outside the University College Hospital (UCH) also warned that they would support an indefinite general strike if “pushed to that point” by government inaction over pay.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members from 73 NHS trusts across England walked out on February 6 and February 7, demanding “a pay award that goes 5 percent above inflation”, following widespread industrial action by RCN members in December 2022.

NHS nurse Deste Cengiz, who was on an RCN picket line outside UCH, said she “absolutely” supported an indefinite cross-industry walkout to force the government to hike wages for “frontline workers, teachers, train drivers, all of us.”

She said: “It’s just essential jobs and careers… we’re helping people get better, we are educating the young, we are helping people get from A to B. Everything just needs to be there, but we’re overlooked. This is about the unfairness of it all… we want to be valued for the work that we do.”

Ms Cengiz, who is known by her colleagues as Dusty, said her nursing role “feels like fire fighting” and that Steve Barclay needs to give her “the tools” to do her job.

She said: “If you don’t give me the means to be able to do the job that I want to do… I won’t be able to do it. But yet the blame will be on me again.”

Her nursing assistant at UCH, Helena, echoed that sentiment, backing a cross-sector strike: “If we don’t stand together nothing will change… I think you see that throughout history.”

Joanna, also a UCH nurse, told that a general strike was “the only way” the Government will grant inflation-busting pay increases. An opinion shared by Westmoreland Street Hospital nurse, Jeff, who said he “probably would” back indefinite multi-sector industrial action if “pushed to that point.”

“It all depends on what the government do, basically”, he said. “It shouldn’t get to that point, it shouldn’t get to that point at all.”

UCH Senior Sister, Janet Maiden, conceded “people would be terrified” of an indefinite mass walkout, but nonetheless went on to say the trade unions “definitely need to up the ante a bit and unite our actions.”

“It doesn’t make sense to have ambulances one day, physios one day, nurses one day. So I think we should be all out together.”

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has shown no sign that he is willing to give in to the RCN’s demands. “Despite contingency measures in place, strikes by ambulance and nursing unions this week will inevitably cause further delays for patients who already face longer waits due to the Covid backlogs”, he said.

“We prioritised £250million of support last month for extra capacity in urgent and emergency care, but strikes this week will only increase the disruption faced by patients.

He added: “The Governor of the Bank of England warned if we try to beat inflation with high pay rises, it will only get worse and people would not be better off.

“It is crucial people continue to access the services they need – please attend your appointments unless told otherwise, use 999 in a life-threatening emergency and use NHS 111 online services, your GP and pharmacy for non-urgent health needs.

“I have held constructive talks with the trade unions on pay and affordability and continue to urge them to call off the strikes. It is time for the trade unions to look forward and engage in a constructive dialogue about the Pay Review Body Process for the coming year.”

The idea of a mass walkout was mooted by regional ASLEF chairman Bill Rogers, who addressed the picket line outside UCH. The rail trade unionist, who said he was joining the picket to be with his striking daughter, told the strikers “the RCN, Unison, ASLEF, should be driving forward with the TUC for a general strike.”

Met by whoops and cheers, the chairman of ASLEF’s Chingford branch hit out at the former Health Secretary and now Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt: “If we don’t have a general strike, they’ll grind you slowly into the ground. Jeremy Hunt, a couple years ago, attacked the doctors and the TUC left them isolated and it was a big cut in their living standards because of Jeremy Hunt.”

Jeremy Hunt was appointed Health Secretary in 2012 having previously been Culture Secretary. During his tenure as Health Secretary, the MP for South West Surrey was criticised over his handling of plans to introduce new contracts for junior doctors. The resultant dispute saw doctors walk out twice in 2016.

ASLEF activist Rogers told he was “quite surprised” at how “well-received” his address was. Asked whether he believed striking nurses backed a coordinated cross-sector walkout he said: “You just heard them. When I said it, they cheered.”

Nurses on the picket line were not only preoccupied with the idea of general strike action. Some also claimed part of the reason they were on strike was because of staff shortages brought about by Brexit. Nursing assistant Helena said: “We had several nurses that were from abroad and they went back home because of Brexit.”

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Mark Avery, an anaesthetic nurse practitioner, said that Brexit has “definitely” contributed to the growing NHS vacancies list, which includes more than 46,000 nursing roles according to latest figures. Erika Avery and her colleague Maria, both intensive care nurses at UCH, also apportioned some of the blame for the crisis in the NHS to Britain’s EU exit. “I came here with 20 Spanish nurses, there’s only two of us left from that group”, ICU nurse Maria said.

Erika told “I think it’s Brexit, but it’s also obviously the pandemic… it’s everything. The cuts and the shortage of money that’s being put back in. It’s not enough.”

However, Brexit blame was not being levied by every striking nurse and the idea was rebuked by Peter Bone, known as a particularly staunch defender of the UK’s 2016 vote to leave.

The MP for Wellingborough said “there is no relationship” between staff shortages in the NHS and Brexit. He said: “Brexit gave us the freedom to bring in… overseas staff from across the world. There was no automatic right for people to come from the European Union. If we need people for the NHS we can bring them in, it’s the complete opposite of what is being suggested.”

Belgian-born NHS haematology oncology nurse Bert Roman said he has “seen people leave after Brexit” but said staffing holes in the health service exist because nursing jobs “are just not attractive anymore.”

“You come home crying… feeling devalued. You can’t even pay your bills anymore whilst working full-time… I’m also on benefits, I’m on Universal Credit.”

Despite striking nurses’ claims that there are not enough of them, pointing the finger at Brexit, according to NHS data, as of September 2022 there were 211,825 nurses specialising in adult care, compared to 177,322 in June 2016 when Britain voted to leave the EU and 189,987 in January 2020 when the UK formally left.

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