NEWS broke last week that a majority of Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members had voted to take strike action for the first time in the union’s 106-year history. With Unison following suit this week, we find ourselves at a crucial intersection in the fight for our health service – and facing some uncomfortable truths about why we’re only now having this conversation.

The NHS is widely regarded as the “crown jewel” of our public services but it is so often taken for granted by the public and politicians alike, albeit in different ways and for different reasons.

I think all of us, at one time or another, have been guilty of it. The NHS is a cornerstone of our society in Scotland and is not a source of financial anxiety for us. Because it is so highly regarded and has been around for the majority of our lifetimes, it’s easy for us to assume that it will always remain – and on the same terms.

NHS Scotland has been operating as we know it for more than 70 years and in that time has been a world leader in public health and the creation of health technology. From providing the world with its first practical ultrasound machines in 1958, to scrapping prescription charges in 2011, Scotland’s health service continues to be world-renowned for its excellence.

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It’s an excellence that can be traced back centuries – from the pioneering of penicillin and anaesthesia to the revolutionary Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, we have an incredibly rich medical history to protect.

Scandalously, you don’t often hear of those successes. In fact, the most we hear about the NHS is at its weekly slandering by opposition politicians at First Minister’s Questions. The same politicians who, during the pandemic, would stand on their doorsteps and clap for healthcare workers are tearing into its performance and insulting the very staff they were outside applauding.

The NHS has long been a political football, never good enough for the opposition and incredibly tricky for the party of government to do well with.

Despite this, NHS Scotland remains impressive. Fortunately for us, Scotland hasn’t electorally got behind right-wing ideology since the 1950s and, thanks to devolution, it’s protected from the grubby hands of the Westminster politicians who would break it down for parts and sell it off to Richard Branson in the blink of an eye.

It’s funny how managing your own affairs for the benefit of your own people is so obviously beneficial in practice.

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However, while we might have control over our health service, our budget is still decided by Westminster governments we don’t vote for. So while we can protect it in political terms, what can we do when Westminster decides to cut the money that we generate and then are handed a portion of and expected to be thankful for?

The strike action that looms is a perfect example of how the Tories politically do still have a hold on our precious NHS.

I work for the health service, as do the majority of women in my immediate family. I have witnessed first-hand the sacrifices our staff made during the immediate threat of the pandemic to save lives and to keep the country going. And the sheer expertise and dedication that led to the mass rollout of the vaccine that has protected our most vulnerable, thwarted Covid numbers and allowed us to return to a more normal life.

Working in the health service requires a level of skill and dedication no matter what the role is. It’s a complex institution with an incredible amount of responsibility for public safety, and that responsibility lies across all categories of roles.

THE pandemic certainly highlighted this, but it’s something those of us with professional NHS experience, or with family members who have that experience, have known for a long time. While I’m glad the pandemic shone a light on it, why has it taken this long for people to see the value in NHS staff? And more specifically in nurses?

Being a nurse is an incredibly skilled profession that takes years of study and in some cases further specialist study. Nurses have huge responsibility for the lives and wellbeing of their patients and are exposed to emotionally intense situations every single day – and yet, this is not at all reflected in their pay packet.

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I’d struggle to pinpoint any other role in any other sector where a candidate was expected to have this much expertise and dedication at this kind of pay point.

The reality is that nursing in particular is a very gendered profession. The vast majority of nurses in our health service are women and it’s hardly a surprise given the gendered roles we create for women in society.

It also points to why that work has been so chronically undervalued until now. Women are undervalued generally, especially for the care roles we are expected to take on in our personal lives, so is it really any surprise that we’re undervalued in professions that require us to tap into that construct? These planned strikes are a travesty – for both the patients that rely on care and for the staff that sacrificed everything to keep this country safe, only to find themselves mere months down the line having to demonstrate why they matter.

They are also a wake-up call for the general public – while the right will batter the health service and no doubt use the strikes to justify the need for privatisation, there has never been a more pertinent time to fight for the rarity that is our NHS.

Get behind your NHS staff, support the strike and show politicians across the spectrum just how valued our health service is.

While this will be tricky road for the Scottish Government to walk, I have more faith in them to deliver than I will ever have in Westminster politicians.