The National Health Service (NHS), which is the fourth largest employer in the world, is in a financial crisis. One in four NHS trusts failed to balance their books in 2004-2005, leaving the NHS with a deficit of £250 million.
At the time of writing figures were not available for the next financial year, but it has been predicted that they will be worse.
At the beginning of this year, it was announced there would be more than 7,000 job cuts across NHS Trusts. And health chiefs are taking other measures, including closing wards, cutting the number of hospital beds, delaying operations and closing operating theatres.
‘Keep Nurses Working, Keep Patients Safe’
The government’s Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, felt the anger at proposed changes in the NHS when she attended the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) annual congress in April. At the entrance to the conference hall she was greeted by the sight of a cardboard coffin bearing the words ‘Rest In Peace, NHS?’, and many delegates were wearing T-shirts carrying the slogan of the RCN’s new campaign ‘Keep Nurses Working, Keep Patients Safe’. Patricia Hewitt also received a cold reception at the congress and was even forced to abandon the end of her speech when nurses booed, stamped their feet and heckled her.
Nurses have been angry and demoralised about rising deficits, the threat of redundancies in some NHS trusts, the Government’s pension provision and their 2.5% pay rise, announced in March. Tensions are said to be so high that they would consider taking strike action for the first time in very many years.
The RCN General Secretary, Dr Beverly Malone, said the government risks losing the support of nurses and told ministers to start treating them like valued professionals. Speaking at the conference, she said nurses support reforms that benefit patients but they are prepared to oppose change if it threatens the future of the NHS. She later added that the Government should remember that NHS services rely on the goodwill of nurses, stating that they worked the equivalent of one day of unpaid overtime a week and could stop doing that. ‘We may consider not working those hours, but such action is always a last resort because nurses are always going to be looking at how to make sure patients are safe.’