We will see if there is the political will when the Government respond to this debate today, and afterwards as well.
One of the petitions we are considering today, with over 162,000 signatures, calls for an increase in pay for NHS healthcare workers. They are doing tough work in very challenging circumstances, putting their lives on the line, and for ever-squeezed pay. There have been calls for staff to get paid properly for all the hours they work, especially overtime, which really is not too much to ask.
The Royal College of Nursing has taken issue with recent claims by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that nursing staff have received a “significant pay rise”. The college’s research shows average earnings for NHS staff have not kept pace with the cost of living since 2010. Ahead of the next pay round for 2021-22 it is calling for an
“honest dialogue…in valuing the nursing workforce”.
We know we have a shortage, and paying health workers properly is key to having the workforce we need. It would be a grave error by the Government if, following the crisis and the recession that we are already heading into, they look to balance the books on the backs of public sector staff in the way we saw after the banking crisis in 2010—the very same public sector workers we have been clapping for in gratitude for saving so many lives. Neither must we see a repeat of the junior doctors dispute, where staff were treated appallingly and morale was devastated as changes to pay and conditions were forced through.
While he and I would certainly disagree on the detail, I echo the comments made by the former Chancellor Sajid Javid, calling on the current Chancellor to focus on growth, not austerity. We cannot cut our way out of this recession, and certainly not with cuts aimed at the very people who are getting us through this crisis.
Many medical students have also stepped up to support their future colleagues in fighting the virus. There are parliamentary petitions calling for reimbursing fees and reducing student loans. The Petitions Committee is conducting an inquiry into the wider impact of this crisis on students, as there has been unparalleled disruption to higher education.
Before this crisis, student finance reforms also impacted on the healthcare workforce. The decision to scrap NHS bursaries in England and replace them with loans led to applications falling by a quarter, and there are almost 40,000 unfilled nursing posts. While that error has been partially corrected by the restoration of maintenance grants, this will not benefit current students.
One petitioner says that nurses
“will surely work tirelessly to do their best to keep the rest of us safe while at the same time they continue to be charged interest on these loans for a cost which they should not have been required to bear in the first place.”
Another, calling for the current intake to receive grants, says:
“Most student midwives and nurses in those intakes will leave university with at least £60,000 debt, despite having committed to a career in a valuable public service at a time when the NHS is in desperate need of more of them.”
Addressing student finance for healthcare students would be a way to both recognise the efforts of the current intake and help attract more to the profession, but unfortunately the insensitive comments of the Minister for Care recently are a bad start to this, so I urge the Government to do everything they can to rebuild trust.
But the most devasting impact of all has been in social care. Our care homes and their elderly and vulnerable residents have painfully borne the brunt of this crisis. More than 16,000 people have died from covid-19 in care homes, almost a third of all fatalities. Far from the Government wrapping a protective ring around care homes, in the early days of this crisis they were left exposed, without adequate PPE or testing for staff despite their desperate pleas. The human cost of this failure is harrowing.
The crisis has well and truly exposed how neglected our care system has become. Too many staff are low paid and on insecure contracts; too many have had to make choices between risking people’s lives, including their own, or going without pay. Many carers do not receive even the national minimum wage because they are not paid for travel or sleep time.
Campaigners, including the trade union Unison, have been calling for care workers to earn the real living wage of at least £10 an hour outside of London. Working conditions and employment rights vary immensely between care providers and we need to see care workers properly recognised and rewarded for the vital work they do.