A NURSE working in a major Devon hospital who has spoken out about why she and her colleagues have voted for strike action as the first strike dates are announced.

The Royal College of Nursing, the union for the nursing profession, announced that its members will go on strike on December 15 and 20 after the Government rejected an offer to discuss a pay increase.

The strikes will happen in England, Northern Ireland and Wales with a list of employers where strike action will take place announced next week.

Members voted for strike action in recent weeks and the RCN had been pausing on announcing strike dates to see if the Government would return to the negotiating table.

One nurse who lives locally and works in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital spoke to the Times about why she and colleagues have been pushed to take this unprecedented step.

With chronic staff shortages as nurses leave the profession in droves, she said, lives are being put at risk, saying ‘it feels unsafe’.

Ruth, not her real name, told us: ‘I am fortunate that the cost of living increases are not a major problem for me but, as a nurse of some 46 years, I am appalled that nursing wages do not now – and never have – reflected the skills, knowledge and expertise inherent in a qualified professional nurse which is why I voted to strike.’

Exactly when the strikes will take place has yet to be decided. Because Ruth works in ‘critical care’, her department will continue to operate with a skeleton staff, so some staff will always work on strike days. The strike action, though, is a collective decision by all the RCN members, and they will all be supporting it.

‘We are at the end of our tether,’ said Ruth, saying that the current cost of living crisis that the country faces has come after ‘years of unrealistic wage increases’.

Staff are leaving the profession in droves, she says. The recent rejection of a pay demand by the Government was the final straw.

‘I have worked as a nurse in different forms since 1976,’ she said ‘I worked in nursing education and then I came back into the NHS in 2020 and I have had to start at the bottom of the pay scale for nurses, so the years of experience seem to count for nothing.

‘I’m in fortunate position in that I don’t have a mortgage, I have relatively small outgoings, but I don’t feel that as a professional group of people we are recognised for the work we have to do, the decisions we have to make on a daily basis.

‘In the Emergency Department (ED), triage decisions have to be made in 15 minutes. If ten people turn up within five minutes of each other that isn’t going to happen.’

She said demand had increased in the Emergency Department, partly because people were turning up with minor ailments.

When there were not enough staff, her department at the RD&E used bank nurses and agency nurse ‘but when we have people who don’t know the deparment it does increase the pressure on the departmental nurses.

‘Sometimes it can feel unsafe,’ she said. ‘It is not that the care is not being given – it is being given – but it has changed significantly over the years.

She added: ‘The number of people coming into the ED is much higher. Common sense has gone out of the window. A child who just needs a dose of Capol for instance, people will bring to the ED. That is one of the biggest problems, people using the Emergency Department inappropriately and we can’t turn people away.’

‘After six hours of waiting, people get angry. We do get quite a lot of abuse and we have had incidents of physical abuse.’

The cost of living crisis is making an already stressful existance intolerable.

Ruth, who is 65, said: ‘Many of my younger colleagues are struggling to pay their rent or if they are fortunate enough to have mortgages are struggling to pay that. They are using foodbanks. The pandemic was a really difficult time in nursing.

‘People were dying, younger people as well as older people, and relatives weren’t allowed to visit. Right now it is a case of please recognise us for what we are. We are striking because we are desperate, we are at breaking point.

‘I love my job. I am nearly at retirement age and previously I thought I don’t want to retire, I’m happy, I enjoy what I do, but this past year I have changed my mind.’

A statement by the Royal College of Nursing said that strike action had been taken as a last resort, after being offered and rejecting a below inflation pay deal by the Government. RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: ‘Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time. ‘My offer of formal negotiations was declined and instead ministers have chosen strike action. They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute. ‘Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.’