Voices: There could be a sexist reason you don’t support the nurses’ strike

When we think of industrial action in the UK, what comes to mind is coal miners, transport workers and posties industries that are overwhelmingly dominated by men. Women aren’t expected to strike. It’s just not ladylike.

The industries where women dominate are still largely about caring for others. From social care and childcare, to education and even hospitality (the literal definition of which means “generous and friendly treatment of guests” including, presumably, the ones that grope you).

Even if we aren’t working in caring professions, then we are likely delivering the majority of these services in the home for free; as we did during the pandemic. We are expected to do so unconditionally and without complaint, even if it is at the expense of ourselves. Because caring is a labour of love.

So when the Royal College of Nursing announced yesterday that over 300,000 of their members – the vast majority – had voted to withhold their labour in the first ever national nurses strike, the gasping disbelief of ministers was palpable. It must have dawned on the government that clapping and badges weren’t enough. A gazillion years of orthodoxy about the female brain was suddenly brought into question.

Journalists immediately gathered testimony from men – from politicians to doctors – outraged by nurses having the gall to strike; lambasting them for not caring enough about their patients. Disappointingly, a male GP accused nurses of going “against the tide just because [they] want a pay cheque” in the Daily Mail; while backbencher MPs took on patronising tones, warning nurses to “think very, very carefully” and to “consider the impact” on patients and the NHS.

In one such article in the Mail, the health minister Steve Barclay warned nurses were “out of step” with their unreasonable demands – or perhaps, I wonder whether he really meant that nurses were stepping out of line?

Here’s the thing: patients’ lives aren’t in danger because of the nurses strike. They are in danger because of decades of spending cuts that defy economic sense and make us all poorer, and the dogmatic pursuit of a hard Brexit that has reduced our NHS workforce to dangerously low levels. They are in danger because nurses are burnt out and leaving the profession at alarming rates, whilst short-sighted measures like cutting bursaries for those training to be nurses has put a slowdown on recruitment.

The truth is that caring is challenging, painstaking and often thankless work. But it is also the glue that holds our society together. It’s the decision to isolate from your own family during a global pandemic so that you can continue to deliver for your patients. It’s the lunch break that was skipped to FaceTime with anxious family members about your patient’s progress. It’s putting your own life at risk day in and day out, whilst having to reassure people at their most vulnerable.

It is precisely because nurses care about their patients that they are striking, and that is why every one of us should be supporting them too. I’m looking at you, Labour, with Keir Starmer’s initial refusal to support NHS workers threatening to strike, followed by a lukewarm response when the strike was eventually announced.

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Nursing is, as Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris put it today, for many a “vocation”. And, despite admitting he wasn’t an expert, went on to ask “who can put a value on care”. And there is the root of the problem. Outrageously, a member of the cabinet is unable to put a value on the vital care that nurses provide, but the rest of us can.

The public sees the extraordinary value of our nurses; we see it now and we saw it over a decade ago before Tory austerity gutted our public services. The story the government is telling is that public finances are in a mess (whose fault is that we’re left to wonder), we’re in a cost of living crisis and we can’t afford to pay our nurses what they’re worth, we can’t afford to value care. The truth is that we can’t afford not to. Our NHS won’t survive if we don’t.

To the nurses across the UK who have balloted to strike: you have my unconditional solidarity. Together you are powerful and you deserve to be heard. Your demands are not unreasonable, and our country owes you an immense debt of gratitude and fair pay.

Mandu Reid is leader of the Women’s Equality Party