'It's the only way we can make this government listen'

In Part 2 of our ‘Have your Say on NHS Pay’ series, UniteLive speaks to Unite rep and paramedic Debbie Wilkinson

Reading time: 6 min

Unite’s consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay in England closes on September 30. Each day this week, we’ll hear from a different member from our Unite health sector who explains why it’s so important to have your say on pay.

Unite rep and paramedic Debbie Wilkinson will soon go on her first holiday in over four years. It’ll be a very brief reprieve at a time when the ambulance service has never been busier.

“The pandemic was incredibly trying time for all NHS staff,” she explained. “But for us as paramedics it was unbelievable – we were among the few staff that were forced to totally carry on as normal going into people’s homes.”

The pandemic was only the beginning – now that the worst of it is over, Debbie says ambulance wait times at hospitals have tripled.

“We’ve got fewer and fewer staff and with longer wait times; it’s been incredibly frustrating. You’ve got to stand there outside hospital waiting to hand over your patients so you can get out there to more emergencies. The radio is screaming at you all the time. They’re asking if anyone is available for ‘Category 1’ emergencies and you can’t go out to help because you’re stood in the queue.”

For such an unimaginably stressful – and essential – job, you’d think paramedics and other NHS staff would be decently paid for the vital work they do. But earlier this year, the government announced a pay rise that would amount to just 4 per cent for the majority of health service workers. This translates into a decisive pay cut at a time when the RPI rate of inflation has exceeded 12 per cent.

While the cost of living crisis is relatively new for many of us, for NHS workers like Debbie who been hit with more than a decade of pay cuts or freezes, they’ve been living a cost of living nightmare for years.  

Even last year, before inflation began to skyrocket, many NHS workers who received a 3 per cent pay rise ended up being left well out of pocket even without accounting for inflation, Debbie explained.

This is because at the same time that NHS staff including Debbie received their pay rise, National Insurance and pensions contributions also went up.

“I was also put into a higher tax bracket so I owed more tax,” she noted “I calculated it and between August last year and this September, I am actually £123 worse off each month – that’s money I’m never going to recoup. With this year’s pay rise, again a lot of people will be hit with higher pensions contributions so we are actually losing money through these small increases.”

Debbie said in the last year she’s had tighten up her budget significantly.

“I’ve changed the way I shop, and I’ve cut down on trips away and days out because I just can’t afford it,” she explained. “There are certain things that I just can’t cut down on like fuel because of my job. Since I usually get home between two and six in the morning, I don’t have the option of using public transport for work. I’ve got to use my own car. My fuel bill alone has doubled in the last six months.”

For a large and growing number of paramedics, it now makes no sense – either financially or for their mental health – to stay in the service, Debbie reports.

“In my ambulance station alone, I know five or six paramedics are planning to leave in the next few months, because they can get better paid jobs, with better hours and less stress. I fear we’re going to end up with a raft of ambulance service staff that have got very, very little experience and where we work, this is one place where experience really matters.”

Debbie believes – just as many other Unite members in health told UniteLive – that increasing pay substantially will be essential in recruitment and retention.

“They’re never going to make up for the years of pay we’ve lost but at the very least they can bring us up to a level playing field,” she said. “Otherwise we’re going to lose more and more paramedics and we won’t have enough new ones coming in to fill the gap. Then we’ll have more staff off with ill health because they aren’t getting any down time. And when they do have down time, they can’t afford to do anything with it.”

Debbie said that the NHS is at a crossroads and it’s never been more important to vote in Unite’s consultative ballot on NHS pay and industrial action for its members in England, which closes at the end of next week on Friday, September 30.

“Many people – including NHS staff – are under the misapprehension that in England the government negotiates with the NHS and health unions on pay. They don’t – the pay rise each year is totally imposed by the government through the Pay Review Body. This is why we as workers can’t do anything about NHS pay until we have our say in a ballot with the threat of industrial action on the table. That is the only way we can make this government listen.”

If you’re a Unite member working in the health sector in England, it’s not too late to vote in the consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay. You will have already received either an email notification or letter with a QR code to vote online. If you haven’t received either of these, you should speak to your rep in the first instance, or email [email protected]. The ballot closes on Friday, September 30.

By Hajera Blagg

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