The cost of living crisis has made things tough for many workers, but particularly so for those who work within the health and social care sector. Years of underfunding have led to low pay, a difficult working environment and tough conditions.
Health and care workers are some of the lowest paid employees in the country. NHS Trusts and care homes are reporting losing employees to other industries where jobs are higher paid with better conditions.
Dr Bikram Choudhary, who runs five residential homes across south Wales, said: "We struggle to pay the real living wage whereas they can probably go and work in Tesco or Amazon and get more than what we can offer, plus have night time enhancements."
Supermarket chain Aldi recently announced that they will pay supermarket staff £11 per hour from January 2023, compared with £9.50, the UK's legal minimum wage for people aged over 23.
The government has offered NHS staff in England a pay rise of at least £1,400 which is backdated to 1 April 2022. It is enhanced for the top of band 6 and all of band 7 so it is equal to a 4% pay rise. NHS staff in Scotland will get a 7% pay rise. Across the board this is a real-terms pay cut given inflation has risen to 10.1%. Unions including the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) are balloting members on potential strike action with the results expected this week. Unison and Unite are also now balloting NHS employees. Junior doctors, physiotherapists and ambulance workers are among other groups of NHS workers who are threatening to strike.
With winter on its way and the flu season starting early, it is extremely concerning that swathes of the NHS may soon be on strike, but with an increasing number of healthcare workers being forced to rely on food banks, it's not surprising that they want to their voices to be heard.
Last month Stockport NHS Foundation Trusts became the latest to offer its employees food bank vouchers to help them get essentials. More than a quarter of NHS Trusts are doing something similar and it's not just lowest paid members of staff who say they are struggling. A junior doctor at the trust told the Manchester Evening News: "I’m a junior doctor and I’m struggling beyond words to afford to live, let alone live comfortably. I’m on 30 per cent less than my equivalent in 2008."
Elsewhere, it's reported that healthcare workers are being forced to choose between rent and childcare as their pay does not allow them to pay for both. The UK has the second most expensive childcare in the world, with fees costing almost two thirds of a family's mortgage or rent. International workers, who account for almost half of the NHS nursing workforce, are being hit even harder because they don't qualify for the 30 hours of free childcare currently offered by the government.
Last month a survey revealed that nurses were struggling so much that they were having to choose not to eat at work in order to afford clothes and food for their children. The survey also showed that some NHS staff have stopped paying into their pensions to free up cash, are unable to fill up their cars because of fuel prices and are experiencing mental health problems because of the stress of having to pay bills.
Taking all of this into account, it's hardly surprising that staff are leaving the NHS - and other health and social care roles - in droves leading to a record number of vacancies in the industry. Forty thousand nurses left the NHS within the last year and the amount of people working in social care fell by 50,000 in 2021, leaving a record 165,000 vacancies unfilled, described by experts as an 'absolute crisis'. NHS England reports a record high of 132,139 posts lying vacant which is almost 10% of its workforce.
Not surprisingly, Skills for Care found that the quality of patient care fell when there were fewer staff.
With a new prime minister and a new health secretary in office, it's time for a new approach from government to tackle the absolute crisis rapidly heading for the health and social care sector. NHS leaders have urged Rishi Sunak to publish the NHS workforce strategy to avoid 'disastrous consequences' for the health service the winter. The 15-year strategic plan was originally promised in November 2021 by then health secretary Sajid Javid for spring 2022 but it still hasn't materialised.
With shortages, strikes and winter viruses set to hit soon, Sunak and Steve Barclay are going to have to act sooner rather than later to avoid catastrophe.