Exodus from NHS puts profession in an even deeper crisis
I’m sure everyone has a treasured memory of a nurse.
I’ll always feel warm and fuzzy about the ones who minded me after giving birth — all warmth and reassurance and hot tea and toast at a time when my body didn’t feel my own and my hormones were all over the show.
I think of the professionalism, but the way in which care always felt personal, when my mum was going through cancer treatment.
I think of a lovely friend of mine who is a nurse and how she thought nothing of dropping what she was doing to come and check on my son when he had a tooth knocked sideways after taking a football to the face.
Just last week my husband and I went to get our booster jabs and shared a spot in the queue, since we live together there seemed little point in socially distancing at this point. “Can we come in together?” my other half asked the nurse manning the door. General merriment followed: “Ahhhh we’ve two love birds here! Come on in we’ll get you a second chair,” she chuckled, making the both of us laugh.
The service was quick and painless, but it was that little extra dose of humour that made it a positive experience. Because that’s what nurses do. They go above and beyond. They’re not just the test taking and swabbing and monitoring, they’re the ones who remember the little details, delivering that little bit of added value that makes the person they’re caring for feel better in so many ways.
Which is why it’s so heartbreaking that our health service is currently haemorrhaging its wonderful nursing staff. It was revealed this week that 575 nurses have quit the health service in Northern Ireland in the past five months, with Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing calling it “one of the most urgent issues facing the health service in Northern Ireland”.
“What’s going wrong?” I asked my nurse friend, keen to get some idea of why so many could want to leave at a time of such need. “Morale is awful,” she said frankly, adding that many of those leaving are from ICU.
“They just can’t unsee what they saw at the height of Covid,” she said sadly. “There’s always been a lack of staff and high usage of bank and agency staff, but when Covid hit and people were isolating there was no surplus. We were working with the bare minimum.”
She painted a bleak picture of the remaining nurses expected to train up new staff, on top of their existing work load, new trainees terrified of hospital posts because of the unimaginable pressures and experienced staff opting to work in the community because they simply cannot cope any longer with the strain of trying to do so much with so very little in their hospital posts. How did we get to this point where such crucial members of our health care system are so under-resourced and under-valued that they feel they’ve no choice but to quit?
My friend never mentioned money in the many challenges facing her colleagues in the service, but nurses in Northern Ireland are the lowest paid in the UK. The average salary is around £31,500, not much more than you’d expect to earn as the deputy manager of a large retail store but with worse hours and a lot more bodily fluids to deal with.
It’s obviously not as simple as skimming funds from one sector and handing them to another — didn’t the misleading big red bus of Brexit teach us that? But to put nurses’ pay into perspective, you could pay eight of them on the £253,824 MP allowance claimed by Ian Paisley last year.
But it’s not just incumbent on our leaders to wake up and start paying our nurses properly, we need to value them too, and not just when things are going well. I know nurses who have been attacked and spat on, verbally abused.
They are the face of a system under strain but they’re not the cause of it. It’s understandable that people are frustrated right now if they’ve had to queue for hours for a vaccine, had their surgery postponed, been unable to access medical attention promptly or had a partner banned from the labour ward.
These are all valid reasons for distress — but it’s not the nurses who are to blame, it’s a poorly resourced system where they are as much a victim as the rest of us.
Nurses are our healthcare heroes and if we want to hold on to them then we need to give them a reason to stay. They’ve cared for us, now it’s time to treat them better.