Nurses have expressed their anger over the public sector pay cap in a protest outside parliament, warning the government they are prepared to take industrial action.
Around 2,000 nurses from all over the country congregated in Westminster on Wednesday at a Royal College of Nursing (RCN) protest against the policy that has led to a 14% real-terms cut in the wages of staff in England over the past seven years.
Speakers took turns to share stories of how the squeeze had left them and their colleagues living hand to mouth.
The RCN president, Cecilia Anim, told the rally in Parliament Square that she had a message “to the people next door”.
She said: “For far too long our hard work, our skill, our dedication has been taken for granted by this government … for too long the lives of our friends and colleagues have been blighted. And why? Because our pay has been cut.”
Nurses in the crowd, from those just starting out on their careers to others with more experience, told how they were struggling to cope at work because of staff shortages, and at home because of the pay restraint.
Billy Nichols, a nurse of 25 years who works at Wrexham Maelor hospital, said:
“My disposable income has dropped over the last seven years so it’s a struggle to pay bills, pay the mortgage. There’s been a steady decline in morale and it’s reaching rock bottom.”
Cyr Powell, a nurse of 10 years’ experience, who works in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, said: “I still live at home because I can’t physically afford to pay rent and bills and everything else. It’s not all about money, but enough is enough.”
Lana Cook, from Scotland, who has just completed her training in Northern Ireland where wages lag even further behind the rest of the UK, said nurses were being driven abroad not just by poor pay prospects but also safety concerns.
“A lot of my colleagues are [planning on] getting one or two years under their belt and then going to Australia, New Zealand, Dubai to save for a mortgage. I will probably go abroad if things don’t get better.
“I don’t want to come home every night and feel deeply sad because I have not been able to do the job I want to do to the standards I want because there are not enough staff.”
The demonstration was timed to begin immediately after the first prime minister’s questions of the new parliamentary year. One speaker reminded the crowd that during the election campaign Theresa May had said there were “complex reasons” nurses were using food banks.
A gospel choir sang before and after the speakers, changing the words of the gospel standard Soon Ah Will Be Done (With the Troubles of This World), made famous by Mahalia Jackson, to “soon ah will be done with the troubles of this cap”.
Claire Holmes, a nurse in Romford, Essex, attending the demonstration with her husband and two children, enthusiastically joined in with a chant of “scrap the cap”. She told the Guardian her monthly wages lasted barely two weeks.
“My daughter says she wants to become a nurse like mummy, but I worry,” she said. “I wouldn’t encourage other people to go into nursing, which is a shame because the job itself is brilliant, but I’ve come to the conclusion we’ll never own our own home, [or] be able to go on a family holiday.”
In May, more than 50,000 members of the RCN voted in a poll on pay, with eight out of 10 saying they were prepared to go on strike if the pay cap was not lifted. Almost all the nurses the Guardian spoke to at the demonstration said they were prepared to walk out.
Dressed in her scrubs, Emily Meins, a senior staff nurse at St Thomas’ who in March was involved in the response to the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge, said: “Anything that puts patients at risk is obviously something that goes contrary to my core values, but it’s got to the stage where the government aren’t listening and we’ve got to do something different.”
Celebrity support came from the actor Tony Robinson and the comedian Rob Delaney. Robinson told the crowd they had been “consistently slapped in the face” by the government and, channelling Baldrick, the character he played in Blackadder, he said: “We all have a cunning plan, scrap the cap now.”
To laughs, Delaney said: “The NHS is a wonderful thing. I mean the doctors, they’re alright, but nurses are the glue that holds everything together.”