The NHS has survived for 75 years thanks to the “dedication, compassion and commitment” of its nurses, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said.
But the college said that while the institution cares for everyone, from people who live on the street to those who live in palaces, it could do more to care for its own nursing staff.
Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said that nurses on the front line have described a service “crumbling at the seams” due to “neglect and constant cuts” over the last decade.
Nurses have described working in “extreme conditions” with a “depleted” workforce and “their feeling of sadness about the state of the NHS is palpable”, she said.
In an interview with the PA news agency to mark the milestone anniversary of the health service, Ms Cullen said: “There absolutely wouldn’t be a health service without nurses. They’re the backbone of the NHS and I would describe them as the beating heart of the NHS.
“I think the NHS has survived because of the dedication and the compassion and the commitment of nursing staff.
“There’s no doubt if you look at our health service and it is sad to think we’re celebrating 75 years being in such a state that it is in.
“In (recent weeks) I have spoken to hundreds and hundreds of nurses, their feeling of sadness about the state of the NHS is palpable.
“They describe working in the most extreme conditions, they describe an NHS that’s that’s crumbling at the seams.
“The NHS deserves much more. It deserves to be nurtured and looked after and treated as the incredible institution that it is and was set up to be.
“Yet over this last decade, at least, the NHS has been subjected to constant neglect and constant cuts.
“(Patients that I have spoken to) have said that against all odds our nursing staff – even with the conditions that they find themselves working in, with a depleted nursing workforce, a service that is under crisis, and one that is is almost always on red alert – that they still manage to give them the best possible care and treatment and make every patient feel individual and highly special when they come into that system.”
Asked if the service would still be around in another 75 years’ time, she said: “If nurses have anything to do with it. You definitely will have an NHS for the next 75 years.
“And that’s why it is so so important to address the crisis that we’ve got within our nursing profession.
“When you think about the NHS, what other great institution is set up to provide care for the most disadvantaged and underprivileged in this community, the people that we walk by on our streets, homeless at night, and those people within our NHS are as equally entitled to healthcare at the point of delivery, as is a member of the royal family.
“So that’s the greatness of our NHS institution. Nurses have protected for the last 75 years and will continue to do for the next 75 years.”
At present there are around 40,000 nursing vacancies across England.
Though the new NHS Long Term Workforce plan, released last week, sets out how the NHS intends to boost nursing numbers in the coming years and the work it intends to do on retaining current staff.
Nurses have been in a bitter industrial dispute with the Government over pay since December last year when RCN members staged the first mass walkout of nurses in NHS history.
The most recent ballot of members failed to reach a strike mandate and the RCN said it will continue fighting for nurses’ rights though other means.