The Tories hit a storm of anger after calling for a paltry 1 percent pay rise for NHS workers on Wednesday—and the reaction could lead unions to strike.
The government deliberately timed its message to go out the day after the budget in the hope it wouldn’t grab headlines. And, when asked, ministers said health workers “should be grateful” they are getting anything at all.
The Department of Health and Social Care has officially recommended the 1 percent pay rise to the panel that advises the government on NHS salaries. The panel is due to make its own pay recommendations in early May, when ministers will make their final decision.
But low-paid workers and much of the public responded with indignation.
Many pointed to the more than 850 health workers who’ve died from coronavirus. And they pointed to the hypocrisy of Boris Johnson and the other Tories who were so keen to be seen clapping the NHS last spring.
“1 percent pay rise,” raged one nurse’s parent on Twitter. “My daughter gave up a theatre nurse post in order to work on a Covid-19 ward, didn’t see son for nine weeks. What a kick in the teeth.”
One learning disability nurse wrote, “The pandemic has been nothing but a money-maker for them, while the rest of us have been on our knees.”
Now there are hopes that the Tories’ insult will lead to a fight back.
“There is absolute fury on the wards,” said Karen Reissmann, a nurse who sits on the Unison union’s executive. “People who worked through the agony of the last year, and who’ve given everything they’ve got to get us through the pandemic, are just incredulous,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The Tories have slapped them in the face. There’s a real mood for action now that union activists must move quickly to harness.”
Unison nationally has called for a mass slow handclap on people's doorsteps and balconies next Thursday at 8pm.
Karen says that activists in her area are planning a big protest this Sunday under the banner “NHS pay… 1 percent is an insult”. She urges every other health workers to put on something similar at their hospital.
“Protests should make the point that health workers have suffered a 20 percent loss of pay in real terms over the last 11 years,” she said. “That we’ve had to work through a year of the pandemic without the proper PPE protective equipment, and that so many of us have got Covid-19.
“We are traumatised and exhausted, but we’ve got to fight back or there’ll be worse to come.”
There are signs that action could go beyond protests. Already the nurses’ RCN union has announced that it is setting up a £35 million industrial action fund. They were set to hold an online rally at 7pm on Friday evening.
“This government is far weaker than it looks,” says Karen. “The only reason it appears strong is that Labour under Keir Starmer is so useless.
“The Tories are vulnerable if we take the initiative. That means no matter what union or health workers’ campaign you are in, you must think, how do I get some sort of protest going where I am?”
Already in Scotland, where workers are angry that pay talks won’t begin until the summer, there is talk of industrial action. Any action they take could give a boost to those health workers fighting in England and Wales.
Strikes across the NHS would be incredibly popular and would rock the Tories to their core.