There isn’t another group of workers in Britain held in such high regard as the men and women who have been on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus over the past year. They have mourned colleagues lost to Covid-19 and worked themselves into the ground. And after all that, they are being offered a pay rise of one per cent?
It stinks. Such a derisory offer offends this country’s sense of natural justice because it amounts to an insult to those who have made herculean efforts to save lives, and given every ounce of compassion in their souls to comfort those beyond help.
So if they go to the barricades to win a settlement that better reflects all they have done for this country, its people are likely to back them to the hilt.
It isn’t as if the bulk of staff are well-paid to begin with. The average starting salary for a fully-qualified nurse is just under £25,000. That’s a long way adrift of the UK’s average wage of £38,600. No wonder so many NHS staff are having to resort to food banks in order to survive.
The Government is completely out of step with public opinion on its pay offer, and the argument advanced by Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock that one per cent is all that the country can afford sounds both weak and shifty.
Everybody knows that we’re in a financial hole. We’re not children, but adults who realise quite well that taxes will have to go up in one form or another to pay for keeping people in work. The Prime Minister should have the guts to level with us, and say that part of that increased tax burden will go on giving NHS staff the decent pay rise that they deserve.
This isn’t just a matter of thanking them, though goodness knows they deserve that. It’s a matter of ensuring that the NHS is fit to cope with whatever fate throws at us in the future by stemming the loss of highly-qualified staff. Short-changing them makes no sense, and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Boris Johnson turning out to clap for carers on a Thursday evening, along with millions of others, looks unpleasantly cynical if those same hands are now delivering a slap to their faces.
The efforts the NHS has made will not be forgotten, especially by the countless people who are either grieving the dead, or bear the emotional scars of having worried about relatives or friends needing hospital treatment.
And there is a whole other tranche of the population that will feel the NHS is being ill-treated by this measly pay rise – all those whose operations or out-patient appointments have been postponed.
What this past year has underlined powerfully is the special relationship that exists between the public and its NHS. Admiration for all it does is a big part of that, but so is affection. Britain’s people regard the NHS almost as part of their own families. No other health service in the world enjoys the same close bond with its population.
It should, and must, be treated as a special case when it comes to funding. The Government has stumbled badly on this, undermining its own loudly- proclaimed commitment to the NHS. And also, possibly without realising it, its shabby deal for health staff also raises afresh questions about what it intends to do about the wider care sector.
No plan for the economy – or the allocation of public finances – can be credible without the government finally addressing the crisis in social care, about which there was not a word in last week’s Budget.
The problems were already apparent before the pandemic, and the grievous death toll in care homes only served to underline the pressure they are under.
Badly thought-out post-Brexit immigration restrictions threaten to deprive homes of the overseas workers that are the backbone of many, posing the risk of making matters even worse.
Those caring for the elderly, and trying to protect them from Covid, are not far behind doctors and nurses in the public’s affections. They were being clapped too on doorsteps across the land.
Boris Johnson has a lot of ground to make up on his credibility as a champion of the health system after the disgraceful pay deal for the NHS.
He should start by scrapping the one per cent offer, replacing it with something much more realistic and then start tackling the crisis in social care as well.
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