The resignation of NHS nurse Jenny McGee is a bad look for the PM. Less than a year after the pair stood side by side in Downing Street’s gardens during an official thank-you visit, McGee has become so disillusioned with the “lack of respect” shown by the government for healthcare workers she can no longer work for the National Health Service.
In a Channel 4 documentary airing this week, McGee, who kept vigil by Boris Johnson’s bedside for two days when he was in intensive care last year, says she felt deeply disappointed by the government’s treatment of healthcare workers – particularly over the 1 per cent pay increase proposed in March.
McGee’s resignation is a huge loss, but campaign groups are warning more could follow as exhausted NHS staff try to heal from the past 15 months – all while knowing their efforts through the pandemic will not be rewarded with fair pay.
In a piece in the Guardian earlier this year one nurse described how the miniscule 1 per cent pay increase was “quite difficult to take in” after what he and his colleagues had been through in the past year. Another nurse said she was planning on leaving the profession less than two years after qualifying, claiming there had been no support for mental health through the pandemic and that staff are “just expected to get on with it”.
Last week’s announcement from McGee reignited the conversation about nurses’ pay and working conditions. Anthony Johnson, health visitor and lead organiser of campaign group Nurses United, told radio station LBC he knew nurses who had left the profession and gone to work in supermarkets in the hope of a better quality of life and, in some cases, better wages.
Just as the government was warned, gushing thank-yous and claps on the doorstep don’t pay the bills.
The average starting salary for nurses in the UK is £24,907. For long hours working in overstretched hospital wards, it is simply not enough. It is no surprise that the people who are there to hold our hands, from our first breath to our last, are leaving.
Even before the pandemic NHS staff were telling us they were at breaking point. Remember back in December 2019, in that other era, when the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a story about little Jack Williment-Barr lying on a pile of coats as he waited to be seen at Leeds General Infirmary. We knew then that hospital wards and NHS staff were struggling with inadequate resources.
And then came Covid. As the pandemic reached UK shores, the government should have been doing everything it could to protect doctors and nurses working on the frontline of the pandemic.
But as a group of activists taking the health secretary to court over the government’s handling of the campaign claim, hundreds of millions of pounds were handed out to firms that, in many cases, had few assets and little or no experience of manufacturing or procuring PPE. What followed was the deaths of more than 880 health and social care workers, while at least 122,000 NHS staff have been left suffering from long Covid.
As NHS staff line up to tell us about how they feel undervalued and overworked, it’s time to ask ourselves: where would we be without them?