This week, as student nurses march on the streets of London and junior doctors take strike action for the first time in their history after an overwhelming 98% voted in favour it is legitimate to ask how the Government have found themselves in this position.
You don't have to look far for the answer; junior doctors complained the Health Secretary's threat to impose a contract without consultation fanned the flames of anger amongst people whom the Chief Medical Officer called "the backbone of the NHS"; and at a demonstration in Central London, senior Royal College of Midwives officials bemoaned the fact the Government had refused to consult with them over changes to nursing bursaries. It is quite extraordinary that twice in quick succession the Health Secretary and the Chancellor have refused even to talk to the main representative bodies of employees in the NHS ahead of such far-reaching changes.
It speaks to a government acting with impunity. And to senior ministers treating NHS staff with utter contempt.
That's why today I took part in a debate in Westminster Hall today on student nursing bursaries. Because the Government need to start listening to dedicated NHS staff when they say something is wrong. And the cut to nursing bursaries isn't just wrong, it is counter productive.
Nursing staff work long hours, in difficult circumstances, and they take a direct role in caring for patients when they are at their most vulnerable. They deserve out respect, admiration and support. That is why it is absolutely crucial, at a time of a crisis in recruitment and retention in the NHS, that the Government do not put potential nurses off joining the profession.
That is exactly what Osborne’s announcement has done.
In the recent Spending Review, the Chancellor announced that from September 2017, NHS bursaries for training nurses, midwives and Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) will be abolished and replaced with student loans.
Research by the trade union, UNISON, many student nurse could be facing debts of up to £51,000 as a result of the short-sighted move meaning it could take them up to 30 years, or almost all of their working life, to pay back the debt.
It is unfair and damaging.
That’s because the same survey revealed that over 90 per cent of current student nurses say they would not have applied for the nursing degree without access to the bursary. Just this month, an alert was issued in London regarding a “critical shortage” of nurse with the vacancy rate jumped some 22% from 8,000 to over 10,000 nursing places left unfilled.
Given there is already a shortage of nurses, with some hospital wards dangerously understaffed, anything that risks worsening that shortage is deeply concerning. NHS staff have already been hit by pay freezes and rising car parking charges. It cannot be right for the Government to now try and balance the books off the back of hard-pressed nurses.
The Chancellor needs to think again.
But now we know there is a pattern emerging with the Government’s behaviour towards dedicated employees of our cherished and beloved NHS. They are choosing the act without consultation and, in my view, with contempt for NHS staff and 'to hell with the consequences for NHS staff'.
By arrogantly forging ahead with a policy which will exacerbate the recruitment crisis and damage patient care in the process, they have betrayed themselves. It is time they listened and put a stop to policies damaging NHS staff.