England’s most senior nurse has suggested she would back a strike by midwives.
Dame Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, repeatedly told midwives she would support them to “use their voices” as she addressed the annual college of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) in Newport, Wales.
After referring to the upcoming ballot of RCM members on industrial action, she told midwives: “If you want to use your voice, remember, we will support you to use your voice.”
Describing how she had “used my voice” to join a hospital picket line as a student nurse in the 1980s, she added: “We must use our voice as professionals and as the chief nursing officer for England, I want to make sure that nurses when they go through those difficult decisions, midwives when they go through those difficult decisions, they know that they have the backing and support to make the decision that they want to do in order to use their voice.”
Dame Ruth spoke about how the recent Ockenden report into a wave of mother and baby deaths and injuries at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust, as well as upcoming reports into similar issues in East Kent and Nottingham, all mentioned or were examining short staffing as a contributing factor.
She suggested pay rises could counteract the high numbers of midwives leaving the profession.
“Pay is important. Pay is a factor. As Chief Nursing Officer for England, I want nurses and midwives across England to be rewarded appropriately for the job they do, the experience they have and for their expertise,” she told the conference.
“Of course, pay is a matter for ministers and I will continue to work with them.
“I know that the Royal College of Midwives has decided with your support to ballot for industrial action.
“My job is… to ensure that when midwives want to use their voice, they are supported to do so. And I want you to know that my job is to support you use your voice.”
Strike may be ‘only resort left’
Earlier Gill Walton, the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, urged workers to strike, saying it may be their “only resort left” to secure a pay rise.
Speaking at the RCM conference in Newport, Wales, she said: “I know that the decision to vote for industrial action is not something you take lightly. Although strikes are always a last resort, it might be the only resort left to us if we are to bring those in power to the table.”
Midwives needed to “hold hands and stick together”, she added.
Last month, the union announced members would be formally balloted on strikes after a consultation found three quarters were in favour of industrial action.
A ballot in Scotland is already open and due to close at the end of October, while dates for England and Wales are due to be announced “shortly”, Walton confirmed. If strikes go ahead, they could be later this winter or early in the new year.
She added: “With inflation currently running at about 10 per cent… [a pay rise of] 4 or 5 per cent is not enough.
‘You deserve a decent deal’
“Midwives and midwifery support workers deserve better, much better. You deserve to be properly valued, properly paid and you deserve a decent deal. While the Government in Westminster removes the cap on bankers’ bonuses, we, alongside other health professionals, often are forced to go cap in hand for the most basic of things - a proper day’s pay for a proper day’s work.”
In July, the Government announced it would give all nurses and midwives in England and Wales a pay increase of £1,400 to their full-time equivalent salary – a nine per cent rise for the lowest paid staff but around four per cent for most midwives. Scotland has awarded midwives a five per cent rise.
The RCM said two-thirds of the pay increase would be swallowed up by rising energy bills, while the rest would go on tax.
The union staged a four-hour strike in 2014 – the first in its 133-year history – after the Government announced a blanket one per cent pay rise.
It has now recommended members vote in favour of both a strike and other industrial action which stops short of a strike – such as working to rule and refusing to do overtime.
The RCM said if any strike were to go ahead, the safety of women and babies would be prioritised.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We value the hard work of NHS staff and are working hard to support them – including by giving over 1 million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year.
“Industrial action is a matter for unions, and we urge them to carefully consider the potential impacts on patients.”