A staff nurse who held a phone to the ear of a dying patient on a Covid ward so he could say goodbye to his family has blasted the government for its “pitiful” 1% pay increase.
Alex Oldham told HuffPost UK that the NHS has had the “year from hell” and that he backed proposals for strike action in response to the gesture.
Oldham, who works in Bristol, said: “We’ve been working through a year-long pandemic where at times we’ve had nurses wearing binbags for PPE, there’s been 850 NHS workers who have died of Covid.
“Yes, we’ve had nice things like Clap for Carers on Thursdays, and when ministers have given praise and kind words, but we now know those words are hollow and not worth anything.”
The main nurses’ union is to set up a £35m industrial action fund in response to the government’s recommendation.
The council of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) made the decision amid growing anger over the pay of health staff who have been under unprecedented pressure during the coronavirus crisis.
Dozens of healthcare workers have also been tweeting their disgust at the proposal.
Unite, which represents tens of thousands of NHS workers, is also warning of industrial action. Some of the hardships endured by NHS workers have seen using foodbanks, moving out of family homes to live closer to the hospitals and cover staff sick leave and living in complete isolation in order to protect their families.
A survey of RCN members last year revealed that more than one in three were thinking of leaving the profession, with many citing pay as the main reason.
Oldham said: “Strike action, in whatever form that may be might have to be the only option, obviously with patient safety carefully considered.”
When asked if he was tempted to leave, Oldham replied: “It does make me consider. There are other avenues to earning more money – like being an agency nurse, but that just doesn’t sing with my values. I like the ethos of the NHS, I like how it all works and the goodwill of it. But we can’t keep running on empty.”
Callum Bell, who returned to nursing during the pandemic after a stint as a community organiser with the Labour Party, says the pay rise makes clap for carers “feel like a ruse”.
Bell, who works on a mental health ward in the north east, told HuffPost UK: “Clap for carers was beautiful. It was so nice to finally see an acknowledgement for the work we do and the risks we take on a day-to-day basis. But that now feels like it was just a ruse to keep public support on board. The actual value they put on us - 1% - feels like an utter slap in the face.
“I’m bloody proud to be a nurse, I worked hard and I want other people to come into nursing, but frankly, why would you for this money?”
Bell, who is in band 6, will see his wage increase by £6 a week under the proposal.
He said: “What can you get for £6 these days?”
Downing Street has defended the figure, saying it was what was “affordable” and Health Minister Nadine Dorries has said she was “pleasantly surprised” at the proposal.
Oldham said he was reminded of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vow to lead a government of substance, not gestures, adding: “Here we are, really not seeing any substance. Even as a gesture it’s pretty pitiful.
“The government also have a pledge for wanting to put an extra 50,000 nurses on the wards by the end of their term in government, but how are they going to achieve that when they are offering, in terms of retention and appealing to people, a £3.50 a week pay rise?
“That’s an extra cup of coffee. That’s what that equates to, that’s the reality. And we also have to think about the human cost of the nurses on the frontline. I’ve held a phone to the ear of a dying patient, to their relatives who are crying on the phone because they can’t come in and see them.
“This pandemic will ripple for years to come because of the PTSD that nurses and many other NHS workers will suffer. It’s a real insult, I’m absolutely fuming.
“This request for a pay rise is not driven by greed. This is driven by the fact we are exhausted. We are on our knees and we are fed up of being treated like this. We want a substantial pay rise to put food on the table, pay the mortgage and pay for childcare.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.