Fairness matters

Is the Government – and its media supporters – simply failing to read the room when it comes to the NHS strikes?

Tired nurse wears face mask blue uniform gloves sits on hospital floor. Essential worker feels burnout stress of corona virus frontline


It’s been a week of strikes as we approach Christmas, with the focus falling mainly on the NHS. Like many public sector organisations, the NHS is dominated by women and the public sector has seen the lowest pay rises of the last year, after years of pay restraint.

The Office for National Statistics shows average regular pay growth for the private sector was 6.9% in August to October 2022 and just 2.7% for the public sector. Taking into account inflation, the public sector has seen a large real terms pay cut. That is on top of years of pay freezes and below inflation rises. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that real wages will not return to their pre-2008 level until 2027.

Once upon a time the argument went that public sector working was more family friendly than the private sector, making up for differences in pay levels, and that it offered security. That is not so true now. Many private organisations are very flexible and many jobs in the public sector have been outsourced or casualised. Moreover, many public sector workers are, post-Covid, extremely overstretched and stressed out, having spent the last three years in a state of extreme overwork and worry about the impact on patients, without any time to process the often traumatic circumstances they have had to work in.

That has contributed to a heady mix of reasons, alongside pay, for discontent and it creates a vicious cycle. The more stress that people are put under, the more their wages don’t cover basic costs, the more likely they are to leave, putting more stress on the remaining workforce who have already been hit by other forces, including Brexit – a self-inflicted economic disaster.

The Government keeps referring to the independent pay review body recommendations – whose independence has been called into question by the unions – even though the recommendation is now dated and inflation has continued to rise in the interim.

It surely cannot be right that people are not earning enough to cover their basic costs. The Government says increasing pay will lead to spiralling inflation, yet the alternative is a two-tier society where the public sector – the very people who we relied upon to put their lives on the line for us during Covid – are the main ones being asked to pay the price and it doesn’t help that we know all too well how some people have profited from Covid in the form of lucrative contracts. That cannot be right and many people can see it. The Government seems to have misread the room when it comes to issues of basic fairness and fairness matters, politically as well as morally.

The Government says a pay rise will stoke inflation and that our children will, in the long term, suffer more, but children are already suffering if their parents are unable to pay for food or heating or the rent, and that early suffering will never be forgotten.

Moreover, many of the reasons why we are in such a state when it comes to the care sector are the result of a long-term failure to invest and plan for the changing demographics which have been signposted for many decades now – an ageing population with more chronic sickness problems. The health backlog has an economic impact as we have seen in this year’s economic inactivity figures. Getting older people back to or to stay in work when they have health issues or when they are caring for people with health issues requires a good health system, but also more flexible working, a fact that some recent prominent members of government don’t seem to have grasped.

The failure to plan and to argue the case for adequate funding for care in all its guises is a political one that runs much deeper than this year’s crises. That failure is very definitely not young people’s fault and they should not have to pay doubly for this – in terms of current poverty and the collapse of our basic infrastructure.  Negotiation is surely the only way forward.

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