A nurse who joined the NHS as a teenager described himself as ‘demoralised, worn out and exhausted’ by the frontline pressures as he took part in strike action this morning.
Matt Tovey, who worked a 12-hour shift finishing late last night, is among staff who have walked out across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
He warned that nurses are at ‘breaking point’ as they struggle to care for patients and feel they have no option but to take part in the first strike by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in its 106-year history.
The 32-year-old, who works at the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, said the ‘chronic’ pressures on the service are the worst he has experienced since he joined the NHS 15 years ago.
He is among around 10,000 RCN members taking part in the first day of action, which is due to be followed by another on December 20.
‘Following the pandemic and 10 years of austerity in the NHS I feel that this is the only chance we have got to make our point,’ Mr Tovey said.
‘It’s about us not being able to do the job we are employed to do and about patient safety because we are so short-staffed.
‘It’s become quite chronic on the wards and in the hospitals, we just haven’t got the staff on the ground to provide the care we need to.
‘The pandemic only exacerbated the existing staffing crisis, for example on the shift last night we were short-staffed and each of us was doing the job of two to three people. The waiting lists for operations are growing and growing and there’s only so much we can do as staff members.
‘Nursing is not an attractive profession to come into at the moment because people know how short-staffed we are.’
Mr Tovey has joined RCN members who are calling for an above-inflation pay rise as the cost of living crisis adds to the frontline pressures on NHS workers, who are also carrying the burden of staffing shortages and record waiting list and ambulance response times.
‘I feel demoralised, worn-out and exhausted,’ he said.
‘The worst thing is we are just so stretched we can’t deliver the basics of care like washing and dressing and getting to people on time to take them to the toilet. They are little things which amount to big things, and then you feel guilty because errors are made.
‘I feel like the government has just walked away from us, they have clapped us and now they have slapped us.
‘We need to see money on the table, not just for us but for staff recruitment and retention. I feel we can’t go on the way we’re going, we’re at our wits’ end, which is why we have to strike.
‘I would like to see Rishi Sunak or Steve Barclay do a shift on a medical ward and to see the pressure we actually face. I would like to think they would have a change of mindset.
‘They would see the pressures on staff morale and the burn-out.’
The biggest strike in NHS history involves nurses at around a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England and nearly all in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Mr Tovey admitted that he felt he should be on the wards but stressed that staff feel they are at ‘breaking point’.
He has launched a Change.org petition to gather support for NHS workers in face of ‘huge real-term pay cuts’ as ‘my colleagues rely on foodbanks and face homelessness’.
‘I came into the NHS when I was 17 and I was a health care assistant for many years because I have a passion for helping people,’ Mr Tovey said.
‘But now I feel I can’t do my job, and that’s the most upsetting thing. This is the general consensus as well.
‘While there’s still camaraderie we are at breaking point and this is the worst I have ever known things with the pressure, staffing and anxiety.
‘Most nurses have pre-shift anxiety because we don’t know what we’re going to go through, whether we will have enough staff, enough beds or if the ambulances will be packed up at the door.
‘The feeling on the ground is we don’t want to go on strike but we feel we have to show the government we are serious in our actions and we have to fight for our patients’ safety and our own mental well-being.
‘There will be just enough people in the hospital to ensure people are safe but sometimes it is like that on a normal day anyway, the truth of the matter is the NHS is in crisis and the government needs to listen to us.’
The walkout is likely to mean disruption to routine services although NHS England has said ‘key life-saving services are set to continue’.
Christmas Day-style rotas are in place for adult A&E and urgent care.
Stalemate continues between the two sides, with the government rejecting the RCN’s demand for a pay rise that amounts to a 19.2% rise on the Retail Price Index measure of inflation.
The RCN has said that at the time it submitted its request, the measure was 7.5% and followed years of real-terms pay cuts which have left experienced nurses 20% worse off since 2010.
A backdrop of industrial unrest includes walkouts by railway workers, DVSA driving examiners and Royal Mail staff this week, with paramedics due to strike on two days later this month.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘Our nurses are incredibly dedicated to their job and it is deeply regrettable some union members are going ahead with strike action. My number one priority is to keep patients safe – I’ve been working across government and with medics outside the public sector to ensure safe staffing levels – but I do remain concerned about the risk that strikes pose to patients.
‘Nevertheless, the NHS is open and patients should continue to seek urgent medical care and attend appointments.’
Mr Barclay referred to the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body, which has awarded most staff an extra £1,400 a year.
He said: ‘Further pay increases would mean taking money away from frontline services at a time when we are tackling record waiting lists.’
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