[Britain] NHS Student nurses lead the fight for pay and funding

Socialist Voice interviewed Dafydd Jones, a student nurse at Swansea

SV. As a mental health student nurse in Swansea you participated in one of many demonstrations on 8 August, how did the event go?
The march was around 200 strong, which isn’t bad for Swansea, especially given the current circumstances. Nurses were highly visible at the rally, with many marching in scrubs in defiance of NMC (Nursing and Midwifery Council) instructions.
In terms of union support, it was minimal with only the local trades council and a UNISON banner on show, aside from a handful of RCN (Royal College of Nursing, which calls itself the union for nurses). I feel that disillusionment is growing with the RCN who are increasingly seen as impotent and docile, despite their involvement in the recent nurses’ strike in Northern Ireland.
From what I’ve seen out on placement, the GMB union seem to be gaining members due to their rejection of the last pay deal, when RCN and UNISON capitulated. What was interesting about Saturday is that the demo seemed to be organised by grassroots NHS workers rather than from the unions, which I see as a positive development as it shows a willingness to start fighting on our terms.
SV. What was the protest about?
The national mobilisations in many cities were about a 15% pay increase because the government has refused to offer nurses any pay rise, and it was also about patient safety. The sorry state of understaffing due to nursing shortages and general underfunding has severe implications for the wellbeing and safety of the patients and the care we can provide and that is something that any decent nurse will fight tooth and nail for.
In Northern Ireland, 15000 nurses went over strike over pay claims and underinvestment. I believe that nurses in the rest of the UK can and will take action, but we need support from unions from other sectors to reinforce what we do. Personally, I would be looking for secondary action based on the fact that an attack on the NHS is an attack on everyone. We fight for you, now you fight for us! Deal?
SV. What do student nurses think should be the next steps over wages and extra funding?
At the moment I think there are three camps, the optimists who still believe we will be justly rewarded at the end of the current pay deal, the pessimists who believe we’ll get nothing whatever the circumstances and a smaller group who are arguing for action on the ground to get things done. The latter group are small but growing in size and noise across the UK, and I think the logic of their arguments is damn near impossible to argue against, especially when the new pay deal comes. It fails to meet any level of expectation, as is almost inevitable.
SV. You say the NHS is underfunded, can you give some examples and what is an agreed demand by nurses (for example  5% of GDP)? 
To return to the cause of the demonstrations, the pay and conditions of nurses, both qualified and students, is a key part of NHS underfunding. Lack of resources, stressful situations are causing nurses to leave the profession at a rate of about 30000 per year. There simply aren’t enough students coming through to replace these experienced professionals, especially when you consider that the bursary was abolished in England. This means that English nursing students can expect to qualify with an average debt of around £47000 before they have even worked a day. This has led to a nursing shortage of over 40000 in England alone. Here in Wales, the situation is slightly better as we do not pay fees and have a small bursary, (I get £360 per month) but we are still expected to work 2300 hours on practice in the wards and clinics before we qualify without getting paid a penny. All of these underfunding factors combine to create a perfect storm in which patient care pays the price.
SV. The government seems to prioritise private services can you give any examples of how that acts against the NHS?
Quite simply this process is designed to contrast “failing” underfunded and under-resourced services against the “success” of well-funded private services in the public eye as a precursor to further privatisation. This is hardly a secret, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt contributed to a book in 2005 entitled “Direct Democracy : An Agenda for a New Model Party” along with other leading Tories such as Michael Gove and Kwasi Kwateng which outlined this strategy to replace the NHS with a private healthcare system. The Tories may style themselves “The party of the NHS” but their actions belie this at every turn.
SV. What is your opinion of the Welsh Labour government concerning the issue of nurses pay and conditions?
It’s quite hard to have an opinion on silence! The Labour Government has said and done nothing thus far, and I’m not holding my breath. Given that First Minister Drakeford is an ex-health minister, this is even more embarrassing than at first glance. Labour need to hang on to their eroding core support, and it seems to me that their strategy here is “the less we say, the least damage we do”. The Labour leader of Swansea Council spoke on Saturday and did little more than make vaguely supportive noises without overtly coming out in favour of our 15% pay rise demand. I have no real idea as to what Labour’s actual policy is towards the nurses is, and after speaking with some friends who are Labour members, it’s clear that they don’t either! I will be interested to see their attitude if the protests grow and they are dragged into the sunlight!
SV. What is your opinion of the Welsh government and the way it responded to Covid-19?
The Welsh lockdown has been harder than in England, and we have emerged from it at a slower pace. This has had strong support by the Welsh people in general although Drakeford has come under considerable flak for it from the right. It also seems to have had an unintended consequence in that it made people clearly understand the powers of the Senedd for the first time and saw the distinction in policy and action between Wales and England in stark relief. This, according to polls has had a knock-on effect in increasing support for Welsh nationalism as people get a real sense of “difference” in the way the crisis was handled in the two nations, especially as Wales is widely perceived to have “Done better”. Plaid Cymru have yet to capitalise on this as they have seemed unable to respond to COVID at all politically and have continued to centre their campaigns on a cultural level. It will be interesting to see how this develops as we make our way out of the crisis, especially in the Senedd elections next May.

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