NURSES and midwives are the absolute backbone of our society. I am currently witnessing the value of their work every day, as my father is seriously ill in hospital and has been literally kept alive by the nurses at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, despite their being perpetually understaffed. Myself, my father and the rest of our family all stand in solidarity with their decision to strike.

Their work is highly demanding, both physically and emotionally, and requires great skill across a wide spectrum of abilities. These people are not, however, heroes – they are humans, who out of a sense of duty and compassion continue to perform heroic acts, to the detriment of their physical and emotional health, receiving pay that is completely incommensurate to their contribution to society, and to the responsibility that rests upon their shoulders.

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Two of my close personal friends have recently qualified into the profession. Due to the numbers of nurses and midwives leaving the workforce, one of them is regularly the most senior member of their team, despite only having been qualified for

two years, often having to juggle multiple, simultaneous emergencies with only one other qualified staff member to hand. They are planning to relocate to another country, where circumstances aren’t so dire.

My other friend has already left the profession after one year, despite his team being desperate to retain him, as he felt so overstretched that he spent all of his time off worrying that he might have been rushed into an error that might have caused someone harm (though he never had). He is now a gardener.

Speaking to staff on my dad’s ward, they have said that wards are at breaking point, with Monday to Friday shifts being particularly hard to cover – weekend shifts are paid slightly better, making them more appealing to bank staff, leaving wards at their bare bones throughout the week. This often means that staff members are unable to any breaks at all, during gruelling 12-hour shifts. As one nurse told me – “even machines need a break”.

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The most absurd aspect of all this is that the situation as it stands actually costs the NHS a great deal of money. When teams finally break, agency nurses are called upon who demand much greater fees (much of which is siphoned off into the coffers of private companies), despite often not being able to carry out all of the necessary procedures for the wards they are sent to.

The NHS is not a broken system. It is simply chronically underfunded, and consequently understaffed. The solution is incredibly straightforward – nurses and midwives need to be paid enough to retain current staff, and to make the job to be attractive to new recruits. With the current maelstrom of crises encircling the country, both financial and societal, we cannot run the risk of letting healthcare continue to be a profession that takes so much more than it gives.

Before the pandemic, it was feared that the UK would need up to 150,000 more nurses over the coming decade. With the government already falling far short of this target, it is a grim irony that this is the precise number of days that the NHS loses annually to mental-health-related sick days amongst nurses and midwives.

Last month, the World Health Organisation described the pressures on the nursing and healthcare workforce across Europe and the UK as so severe that the continent is facing a “ticking timebomb”.

Nurses are not simply striking because they want more money. They are striking for the ability to continue to carry out their work. They are striking to save the NHS. They are striking to save lives.

Rob MacNeacail
Scottish Borders