The grim, relentless reality of being a poorly paid NHS nurse – Plymouth Live

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members are set to strike for the first time in the UK
The grim, relentless reality of being a poorly paid NHS nurse has been revealed with shocking stories ranging from Plymouth nurses having to use food banks because they are unable to make ends meet on the salary they are paid to a nurse leaving the profession to become a HGV driver due to take advantage of better pay and conditions.
It is around 50 years since Leonore Newson became a nurse and never did she imagine that one day she would be joining hundreds of other Royal College of Nursing (RCN) colleagues on a picket line outside Derriford Hospital next Thursday, December 15, unless government negotiations are able to pause the action.
It is the first in a series of two-day planned strikes, the second being on Tuesday, December 20. Nurses are calling for better pay to help the struggling profession retain and recruit nurses.
Read more: Derriford Hospital issue statement ahead of Royal College of Nursing strikes
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is calling for a rise of five per cent above the RPI inflation rate – currently above 14 per cent. NHS staff in England and Wales – including nurses – have been given an average increase of 4.75 per cent.
The lowest paid were guaranteed a rise of at least £1,400. The RCN says this year's below-inflation pay award followed years of squeezes on nurses' salaries.
It says average pay for nurses fell by six per cent between 2011 and 2021 – once inflation is taken into account – compared with a 4.6 per cent drop across the whole UK workforce. The RCN says this is compromising care because it means the NHS is struggling to attract and retain nurses.
There are currently nearly 50,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS in England. The annual salary of a senior band five staff nurse, once they have been in the professional for many years and reached the end of the pay scale, is said to be around £31,000.
Leonore is a staff nurse at Derriford Hospital where she says both recruitment and retention of nurses remain an ongoing problem. The 68-year-old, who lives in Plymouth, admits she recently advised her granddaughter not to become a nurse due to what life is like in the profession but was unable to deter her from pursuing it as a career.
Looking back over her career working in the NHS and how things have changed, Leonore said: "It's easy to look back retrospectively 20 years ago but the NHS was different then as were numbers. The demands were not the same so historically you can't really compare with where we are now.
"The big difference now is the number of nurses on the ward at any one time. The care does no suffer; patients are still well looked after but you don't have that extra time to have a natter with them for a few minutes. Hospital can be a lonely place for patients.
"Nurses often skip breaks time and time again. It's not a given thing you will get a break. More often than not you end up working through your break and grabbing something to eat or drink when you can.
"One of the main reasons nurses are not staying in the profession is due to the conditions they are working under. If you look at people in other professions they can be earning ex-amount more for doing less work with less responsibility.
"I know someone who was nurse for many years and left to become a HGV 1 driver because the conditions and pay were better. When you're a nurse it's hard to get the right work/ life balance.
"Generally speaking, nursing is a 24/7 job and quite often families get put second. When you get home there is very little of you left because you are shattered and have been giving all day leaving very little for your family.
"You often end up working the days you have off as wards are short-staffed. It means you become very tired and run down which all takes its toll on your mental wellbeing.
"People think nurses do the job for the love of it. There is an element of that but when I hear of nurses who are feeding their families from food banks and can't afford to pay their household bills it's not good enough. We are professionals so why are nurses having to go to food banks?
"Many trusts, including my own, have put measures in place to help with the current cost of living. Nurses are also doing so many overtime shifts to try and make ends meet and because there are not enough nurses around to keep people safe."
Leonore has assured that the decision by nurses to strike was not an easy one and that when they do take place, life-preserving care will continue to be provided. Emergency care will still be staffed. Strikes will affect routine services, such as planned operations, district nursing and mental health support
Leonore, who is an RCN Steward, RCN Plymouth Branch Secretary and the south west representative on the RCN UK Stewards Committee, says going on strike is the last thing any nurse wants to do, but that they have been left with no alternative. She said: "I don't want to be on strike and the thought of it has made me cry on more than one occasion. No nurse in the country wants to be on strike.
"We have been pushed into this place. We are all waiting for that miracle to happen where the government says 'let's talk' and that talks start before December 15. That would stop it all, for now anyway.
"The government is refusing to tackle the workforce crisis that we have found ourselves in. We are having to strike to safeguard the future of nursing.
"So often we have nurses coming in to to the professional we do their university training, come out with massive student debts and within a year they have left the profession. According to a recently qualified nurse, 50 per cent of his cohort have left the NHS locally within the first 10 months of qualifying.
"It is all to do with conditions and pay. Our big wish is for there to be a big enough incentive for nurses to become registered nurses to safeguard the future of nursing. Who will benefit from it? The patients.
"We are just so stretched time and time again on the wards. Wards are safely staffed, but with the bare minimum of nurses.
"What we are asking is please pay us fairly for what we deserve. A huge amount of training goes into becoming a nurse and once you get your qualifications all the training starts again to do specific things like giving intravenous drugs.
"It sounds very simple but it's not; Nothing we do is. At the end of the day, we are responsible for looking after very poorly people in most cases and we are not just looking after patients but their families too.
"We carry quite a weight of responsibility so the pay has to be fair. We have to be not taken for granted any longer. What we need is a serious investment in the nursing profession."
Leonore insists the strike is about far more than just better pay for nurses.
She said: "The strike is not just about a pay rise; It's also about retaining and recruiting enough nurses to safely care for patients. Generally speaking, pay rises have been below the level of inflation or just on it.
"What the RCN has asked for is a five per cent rise above the rate of inflation. It's a big ask but given the level of responsibility nurses have, I think it is a reasonable request.
"I knew I was never going to be rich being a staff nurse; but we should be paid fairly for what we do. Nurses in Scotland get paid more than nurses in England. It's not a huge amount but the Scottish government is in talks with nurses where as the English government isn't. The door is open for government ministers to come and talk about the issues.
"We know the public at the moment are behind us. They agree we should be treated better. It's all very well having had the claps for nurses but it does not put food on the table.
"Enough is enough. My big ask is for the government to meet with us, listen and deal with us fairly.
"This is the first time in the RCN's 106-year history that it has gone on strike. It's unprecedented and I hope it never happens again."
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