Over the past year I have sensed a challenge to be ready and willing to join political demonstrations. We have been sold a lie that these never affect any change. I commend Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark (2016) to anyone who believes this. Strikes and protests have been more effective than the establishment would like us to believe over decades across the world. So it was that last week I found myself standing in the cold with the nurses striking outside a hospital near to where I live.
I joined them because I am livid about their needlessly awful pay and conditions and the unacceptable dearth of nurses following Brexit and years of “austerity” policies that have seen staff numbers drop and investment in them and their work cut.
I also joined them because these are some of our most compassionate people and I really admire compassion. My impression is that you would not survive long in nursing unless you had a sense of vocation to the work. You have to really care about people to do this. Why would we not listen to these people when they tell us enough is enough, and the Royal College of Nursing reaches the point of voting for strike action for the first time in its 106 year history? (Though thanks to a blog reader who reminded me the nurses have actually striked before in 1979, 1982 and 1988).
During the hour and a half I spent on the picket lines, I listened to them tell me story after story about the reality of their work, and about their exhaustion in the wake of the pandemic, of the number of staff off sick long term or off and on. Of the unacceptable and unsafe staffing levels.
Trigger warning: some people may find the next paragraph disturbing (regarding the pandemic)
They told me they get flash backs of the trauma they saw in the early stages of the pandemic. They are used to dealing with trauma. This hospital is a Major Trauma Centre, so the Accident & Emergency staff see terrible things routinely. But from the little I understand, one of the most traumatising things about witnessing trauma is inability to help. At the start of the pandemic, before anyone knew exactly what Covid 19 was or how it could be treated, nurses were using all their skills to find ways of helping patients, but they were working in the dark, with little information or clarity about what would help. They saw many patients die in terrible circumstances.
“What do we want?: Safe staffing! When do we want it?: NOW!” was the chant I heard a lot of (and joined in with) when I was on the picket line. These women (and they were nearly all women) are mostly worried that they aren’t able to do their jobs properly, because there simply aren’t enough of them to do the work. And they are seeing patients suffer and sometimes die prematurely because of the unsafe staffing levels we now have in hospitals.
And of course their pay has dropped in real terms. Despite us being so so grateful to them in the height of the pandemic, this is how we have rewarded them.
I was already really angry before I arrived, but having stood with them, yelled with them, and cheered at all the honking traffic passing by with them, I experienced a whole gamut of other emotions, perhaps the most powerful of which were shame and hope.
I felt a really strong sense of shame at the decisions we have allowed our government to take that have so diminished the work and motivation of these people, when surely all of us will have cause to be so grateful to them at some point in our lives. Of all the people we could undervalue why on earth would it be these people? One of the senior nurses I spoke to had an answer for me; “It’s because we are mostly women, and we’re here because we care about others. So they get away with it. Do you think if at least half of us were men our pay would be this low??” She went on to say she is striking because she wants the NHS to be protected and still be there for the young ones coming up now, and because she wants to be attracting more men and all kinds of people into it, because they need more nurses. But she recognises that we will never attract more people into the profession unless we pay them right and value them with decent terms and conditions and actually invest in recruitment as well.
The hope I felt, I found in listening to the combination of really experienced nurses explaining point by point just what they needed to be able to do their job well, and young nurses yelling at the top of their lungs with impressive vim and vigour having been there since 6:30am that morning. (Apparently they were a lot shyer at 6:30am, but by the afternoon they’d really found their voice!) They were so ready to listen to me as well. Their demeanour was lovely! Their motivation is good; they really care about this work. No one gets up that early to strike unless they believe in what they are doing. And none of them wanted to be there. They all wanted to be working inside the hospital. I told them their job of work that day was to be exactly where they were, striking, and I thanked them for bravely doing it.
As I walked home I cried. My tears were a prayer of lament. How long? How long will it be before good people enacting love in the care of their fellow human beings are valued, listened to and prized as they should be?