NHS nurse strike: Sister describes 'dangerous and dire' conditions as thousands stage walkout

Report by Katie Fenton

An NHS nurse who works up to 70-hours each week to make ends meet says she is striking mainly because of "dangerous and dire" working conditions.

Sister Charlene Evans, from Burry Port, works additional overtime as an agency nurse to make ends meet.

Despite this, the mum-of-three said she is mainly striking because of conditions that are "not safe" for patients or staff.

The 38-year-old is one of thousands of nurses striking across Wales, England and Northern Ireland for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing's 106-year history.

Charlene worries about having enough money to support her three children.

"The safe staffing levels are the main issue," Charlene said.

"The nurse to patient ratio is seldomly met because one, there's so many nursing vacancies, and two, we can't retain nurses because the working conditions are so poor.

"We're forever taking on more responsibility and it's just such a strain."

Charlene on the picket line outside Morriston Hospital in Swansea.
Billy and Emma are just some of those on the picket line outside Wrexham Maelor Hospital.

Charlene added: "We're going to work with the best intentions - we're there to make a difference, we're there to make them well.

"We can't do that now, and we're leaving our job crying because we're doing our best physically and mentally but we can't do what we know should be done for them.

"The provisions either aren't there because there's no nurses filling those specialist roles or because we've been stretched on that shift doing something else and we can't fulfil the other things we need to do."

The scene on the picket line outside Wrexham Maelor Hospital

Fighting back tears, Charlene told ITV News striking was a tough decision to make, but one she does not regret.

"Ethically and morally it's not a decision that I came to lightly," she explained.

"Years ago when I was training to be a nurse I vaguely remember strike talk, my recollection is it was something to do with pensions, and I remember being absolutely horrified at the thought of nurses downing tools and putting patients at risk.

"So for me to come to this decision today has been an emotional journey and something that has taken me a long time to be at peace with.

"But I'm at peace with it now because we can't work in these conditions anymore. It's not safe for us and it's certainly not safe for patients."

Charlene said she often works overtime as a staff nurse, but still has to work extra shifts as an agency nurse to support her family financially.

"I can be rostered to do a 12.5 hour shift, I can easily be there for 14 hours. That's my time, time taken away from my family.

"Years ago I would've done it without thinking I need to get home, now I'm not doing it anymore because they've relied so much on goodwill for all this time and it's gone, we can't do it anymore.

"I'm very proud of the NHS and that's why I feel so strongly that I have to fight now to save it.

"If working conditions get any worse then we're going to lose our NHS, and we're not in a position as a country to pay for our healthcare, I certainly am not and I don't know of many that are."

Charlene worries about the future of the NHS, and feels she has been left with no option but to strike.

As a Sister, Charlene is responsible for mentoring newly qualified nurses, but she said she is unable to give them the time they need due to staff shortages.

"We should be protecting these now more than ever because they are our future.

"These are brand new nurses out the box who we should be really looking after, really making sure that we give them the absolute best we can give to make sure that they deliver the best gold standard care.

"How can we be expected to train them to give that best care when we can't actually deliver it ourselves?"

Charlene said paying for essentials has become increasingly difficult, and she finds herself constantly checking her bank account.

Her husband started a new business just before the Covid pandemic and wasn't entitled to financial support.

Charlene wants to be able to spend more time with her family but has to work up to 70 hours a week to make ends meet.

She said their kitchen needs at least £14,000 worth of repairs and they want to pay for an extension, but the family had to use up all their savings during the pandemic.

"We live in a house that isn't fit for five people and two dogs, it's a very small environment, we can't afford to move because the cost of houses in this area are so high.

"The gas and electric is crippling. We are seeing a real difference in the monthly outgoings, but the income isn't going up.

"We just want what we feel is fair, and currently we've been on a pay freeze for about 10-11 years which hasn't met inflation costs.

"What we're asking for is not a pay rise, it's to meet the cost of living.

"We're asking for this percentage rise to give us a decent standard of living so that nurses don't have to go to food banks, so they don't have to sit in the cold, so their children don't have to eat the same thing day-in-day-out."

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members in Wales have been striking over pay Credit: PA Images

There are around 3,000 registered nurse vacancies in Wales - an unprecedented number according to the RCN.

It said more than £133 million was spent on agency nursing to plug these gaps 2021 and 2022, which the union said could have paid the salaries of 4,930 newly qualified nurses.

On Tuesday, the Welsh Government unveiled its spending plans over the next two years, including an extra £165m for the NHS, but no additional pay for nurses.

Helen Whyley, Director of RCN Wales, said: "RCN strikes are inevitable in Wales because the Welsh Government is making it so.

"Our door is always open for a meaningful discussion on fair pay for nursing but this must be a significant increase.

"Low pay is fanning the flames of a workforce crisis and the rising number of registered nurse vacancies is already putting patients at risk. The pressure means nurses are caught between their responsibilities to their patients, their families, and their own health.

"If the Welsh Government is serious about patient safety, they must act now. Nursing staff must be paid fairly for the safety critical work they do."

More than 300,000 members of the RCN were balloted over strike action Credit: PA Images

The Welsh Government has repeatedly said that without additional funding from the UK Government, it cannot make a new pay offer without cutting other services in Wales.

But opposition parties disagree, with both the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru arguing the government has financial levers at its disposal, such as tax and reserves.

The UK Government said Wales will get an extra £1.2 billion over the next two years following its autumn budget.

The RCN has said strikes could continue until early May 2023 if a new pay offer is not agreed.

Health boards and Welsh Government officials have been making contingency plans to minimise disruption, with certain services completely protected from strike action.

The services that will be protected across Wales are chemotherapy, dialysis, paediatric emergency departments, paediatric intensive care, neonatal and critical care units.

Adult emergency departments will also see full staffing levels, with emergency nurse practitioners with additional skills also being drafted in to help with things like minor injuries.