The 1% NHS pay rise, and what it really represents

NHS fair pay protest

Following Rishi Sunak’s budget announcement, one spending policy seemed to really strike a nerve. The Conservatives have seen fit to hand a 1% pay rise to NHS staff. This comes after a year which has seen the greatest public health crisis in a century, with over 120,000 deaths due to the Coronavirus. It also comes nearly a year after the government urged us to stand on our doorsteps and clap for the NHS, whilst our public health workers went in to treat patients without PPE, due to a systemic failure to procure a stockpile of vital protective equipment. With all this context, this pay rise could be interpreted a couple of ways. Charitably, it might be the actions of a government so woefully out of touch that it believes a 1% increase in pay makes a difference.

A little less charitably, maybe the government recognises that 1% is a clearly tokenistic gesture, but enough of an increase that it might dampen cries for meaningful pay rises for NHS workers. If we’re being really uncharitable, perhaps it simply belies the sheer disdain for the NHS that the conservatives have consistently shown through their failure to properly fund the health service, and constant attempts to privatise it by the backdoor. The reality lies somewhere between these three interpretations, though as we’ll see, perhaps the latter is the best summary of the situation.

Isn’t any pay rise for the NHS good?

We have to realise that this pay rise is not a pay rise at all, regardless of how cynically small it may be. In the context of real wages, meaning how pay measures up to inflation, doctors and nurses are about 9% worse off than they were in 2010. In plain English, the wages that are being paid to our most essential workers during the pandemic have been falling for 10 years, not due to upfront cost-cutting, but due to the government not ensuring that pay is tied to the reality of the changing value of money.

Instead, the government is trying to frame paying about 1/10th of the moral and real debt that we owe to lifesaving, highly skilled professionals as a meaningful boost to their incomes. The reality of the rise is that, on a weekly basis, it won’t even cover the cost of many employees’ parking at their workplace for one shift. On gut instinct it’s clear that the 1% boost is cynical and patronising. But when it’s being celebrated like we’re somehow giving our health workers anything more than a fraction of what they’re rightfully owned, it borders on sickening farce.

So why is there no money left for the NHS?

Health secretary and former nurse Nadine Dorries has argued that this is all the government can afford, a statement that warrants further inspection.

This could be plausible, if you consider the huge amount the government has spent on things that are, supposedly, more important than public health during a pandemic. The government, for instance, wasted on handing the Track and Trace contracts to private companies, totalling in at around £12bn, all for a service notorious for its failure to help contain the virus. Looking back into the past for things the government has deemed more important than public health, we can find numerous examples. The government has also invested in a £35,000 increase in pay for MPs over the last 24 years, as well as investing around £205bn in replacing the Trident nuclear weapon system in 2016, an apparatus that will never be used.

In November 2020, Johnson and co. introduced a £16.5bn investment to the military defence budget, and as for Brexit? Well, that political choice may cause even more profound financial consequences than the pandemic itself, according to a professor at the London School of Economics.

“The most… we can afford” – a weak excuse?

These words from the health secretary are telling, given the context we have. This meagre NHS pay cut is not the most the government could do. No, when it comes to military spending on endless foreign wars, nuclear weapons that would cause an unthinkable apocalypse if used, or dragging us out of the European Union to satiate the frothing hunger of Nigel Farage, cost is never the question. We don’t have conservatives feigning concern for the deficit when the government introduces tax cuts for the rich which cost the public £20billion, because we simply don’t see necessary spending and things like tax cuts, military spending and Brexit in the same context.

These things all cost the taxpayer and the government money in some way or another. However, due to three decades of post-Thatcher economics, where public spending has been demonised as dangerous interference, our moral compass has flipped on what we can and can’t excuse spending money on. This logic has forced us to think that unnecessary spending, or at least necessary but ‘impossible’ spending, is the money we invest in our public health system, schools and benefits system.

All the while we’ve merrily been handing more money to rich corporate ghouls through tax cuts and building extinction-level weaponry systems. We’re under a government that’s more willing to add another zero to a hedge fund manager’s bank account than it is willing to at least pay health workers the same amount they were paid ten years ago.

A sign of the times…

With the bigger picture taken into account, the NHS pay rise scandal is the essential core of what this Conservative government is. It is woefully out of touch with what people need and deserve. It prioritises empty symbolic gestures over any kind of meaningful change. It is self-evidently completely tone-deaf.

Worst of all though? The whole charade of this callous and cruel.

The almost knowing manner in which all this is done, with just a handful of scraps tossed to those most deserving after a year of pointless clapping and disastrous policy, typifies what the Tories are for Britain. They know how cruelly meaningless the 1% pay rise is, and the meaninglessness of it is precisely why the policy was put in place. They don’t want change – they want a return to normal. For people to shut up and accept their lot, and be thankful for whatever they’re given, regardless of how pithy and insulting it may be.

As nurses and doctors go on strike, don’t swallow the smear campaign that will follow. News outlets will insist that it is irresponsible for health workers to abandon their posts during a pandemic – but they are not greedy, or selfish, and their actions have not come without provocation. We need to pay our essential workers, our doctors, our hospital cleaners, our nurses and our receptionists a wage that represents how invaluable their work is to our society, and they should be able to go on strike for that compensation. If there’s ever been a time to clap for NHS workers, it’s now – in solidarity with them, not as heroes, but as people who should be rewarded for all they have sacrificed. The 12.5% rise proposed by the Royal College of Nursing is the least they deserve.

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