THE BLOG
05/02/2016 08:20 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 GMT

NHS Staff Deserve a Pay Rise, Not a Pink Slip

It is becoming increasingly clear that the only thing keeping the NHS going is the individual and collective brilliance of the people working in it.

These dedicated professionals are working ever longer and ever harder against a backdrop of ever deepening fears that the NHS is reaching a point of no return.

But now it seems that some of those very same people could be sacked as the health service seeks answers to its ongoing financial crisis.

NHS regulators have written to hospital trusts instructing those in the worst financial state to use 'headcount reduction'.

This would be terrible news for patients and the quality of care they receive.

Patients will wait longer to be seen, leaving them in pain for longer and potentially causing treatable conditions to worsen or become chronic.

Worse still, 'headcount reduction' in practical terms means fewer staff to care for the same number of patients.

This has to compromise safety if staff are pushed ever harder and spread themselves thinner.

Remember that hospitals were told to take on higher numbers of staff three years ago in response to the Francis Report to prevent a repeat of the awful events at Mid Staffs.

As a way to save money, it will almost certainly prove counterproductive too.

Most immediately, raising the spectre of job losses causes anxiety and distress at a time when NHS workers are already working under extreme pressure.

Naturally - and understandably - this could affect their performance at work and, therefore, the productivity of the NHS.

But if trusts do go ahead and sack staff, the damage could be even greater.

Hospitals are struggling already to deliver services with existing numbers of staff - how are they meant to cope with fewer professionals to care for patients?

The consequences will be cancelled appointments, postponed procedures, longer waiting times - all at a cost to the bottom line.

Remaining staff could leave the NHS, forcing trusts to cover their absence with agency staff at a much higher rate and undermining efforts to bring down the bill for temporary workers.

There's an irony here, of course.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has made great play of - and some progress with - his drive on the vital issue of patient safety.

Agency pay has been high on his agenda too.

Yet it is on his watch that efforts on those two fronts could be compromised if wards are left understaffed.

The same is true of another of his big ambitions - seven-day services.

There are many examples across the country of these already in action and where there is a clear clinical case - such as for intensive rehab following a stroke - they are very effective.

But the successful seven-day services are fully-funded so that five days of services are not simply stretched over seven.

Just as important, they are designed in partnership with staff and their unions, not imposed upon them to false timetables.

If you cut staff and fail to provide the money needed to make seven-day services viable, they will fail.

That is at the heart of the matter - respecting staff, valuing their input and recognising the enormous contribution they make day in, day out.

This doesn't mean lip-service; vacuous platitudes about how they are the pride of the nation.

For too long they have borne the brunt of 'efficiency savings', be it through rising workloads, a reduced pension or pay restraint.

Most NHS workers have effectively endured real terms pay cuts of 10 per cent since 2010 as a result of no-or-low rises.

This is unsustainable, as NHS Employers, the body that represents management in pay negotiations, has acknowledged.

But the pay review process has been politicised through government intervention. As a consequence, NHS workers face ongoing pay restraint.

And now the threat of redundancy?

What an appalling, almost callous way to treat staff who have continued to deliver quality services during the toughest of times.

This cannot continue.

The additional money pledged at the election and frontloaded in November's comprehensive spending review was welcome, of course.

All that did, though, was keep the lights on. It was the bare minimum required to keep the NHS afloat.

There remains the need for significant investment over and above that to allow the NHS to make the changes it requires to become sustainable in the future, such as delivering more care out of hospital and a greater focus on preventing ill-health among an ageing population.

But it is NHS workers who will drive that change so it is essential that they are supported in doing so.

This means fully funding the NHS, paying staff fairly and ensuring they can deliver quality patient care that is safe and effective.

We have asked so much of NHS staff and they are continuing to deliver.

It is essential now that the government and NHS employers hold up their end of the bargain.