Veteran nurse Jacinta King speaks about her experience during the unprecedented nurses’ strike action
In the days following the unprecedented step from nurses in Northern Ireland to take strike action in a dispute over pay parity and patient safety, reaching a desired outcome still seems some way off.
Jacinta King has spent more than 35 years working as a nurse and is now an agency nurse at Lucas Love Healthcare. She helped on the day of strike by taking a hospital shift and believes the day was a success on a number of fronts.
“I deliberately chose to work on Wednesday because of the strike action. As I went in for my shift at the Hospital, I saw a senior officer with the Royal College of Nursing who said, ‘Thank god you’re here. We’ve been saying to people that we actually need agency nurses to come in!’
“I said, ‘yes I deliberately chose today because of the strike action’ and she said, “Well it’s not going to be easy.”
“As I came out, I was on my knees and she said, ‘Tough shift?’”
“It was go-go-go and I needed a skateboard for the day. I did get my breaks but it was so busy with so few of us on. Altogether there were three permanent members of staff on duty and then three agency nurses, including me,” Jacinta said.
While thousands lined the pickets in wet and cold conditions to ensure the collective voice of nurses in Northern Ireland was heard, Jacinta was delighted how supportive patients were about the strike.
“Patients I spoke to thought we had every right to strike. Parity and pay wise, they agreed that why should nurses here be paid less than those in Scotland, Wales or England. But, it’s more than just the money and that’s something we’ve been saying all along. It’s about parity but it’s also about patient safety. We do not have the numbers of nurses we need.”
Jacinta knows the issues aren’t recent, and in fact, the writing has been on the wall for over a decade.
“I’ve been involved in the Royal College of Nursing for quite some time and I could have told you this would happen not 10 years ago, but 15 years ago. The Royal College has been very vocal about these issues for a long time and this is the first time that we’ve ever taken strike action.
“What can you say when patients are saying to you, ‘You’re just right. Get out there (and join the picket).’ I could have gone to the picket lines instead of working on the day, but as it was, I went afterwards. It’s about spending time with your patients and we just don’t have that time anymore.”
“When I first started nursing, it was very task-orientated. You did your observations, you made your beds etc. and then we realised ‘there’s a psychological element to this.’ Particularly with children but also with adults and the elderly. If you’re just nipping in and out, it’s not enough for them.”
“It’s nice to have time to spend with them and it’s nice to have some loveliness in your day to say, “How are you? How are you feeling? Is there anything I can do for you? Is your phone plugged in? Have you contacted your family today?
“All of those things are very important, and we have gone away from the holistic aspect of nursing just because we don’t have the numbers. I can’t get to know people very well because there’s just so much to do. Paperwork has increased immensely. There’s a 31-32-page admission procedure booklet, for example. Sense has gone out the window now,” she said.
In terms of solutions to the shortage of nurses, Jacinta believes an element of flexibility needs to be brought back into the industry.
“I do think there need to be more incentives for nurses. You used to be able change your shift between the sister on the ward and your colleagues. You can’t do that anymore – it’s e-rostering now. We used to do it all the time when you needed it and now you’re only allowed something like two or three requests a month. It’s all very difficult and the red tape is not helping nurses here. Nurses have caring duties outside of their shifts too and the lack of flexibility really doesn’t help.”
And, as for the strike action, how successful was the day itself?
“Nurses achieved what they wanted to achieve without putting patients at risk. The challenge now is the knock-on effect where people’s surgery date has been delayed.
“Patients were very grateful that we were there and the jobs were done. Doctors pitched in and did a lot of the jobs that the nurses or phlebotomists would have usually done like cannulation and taking bloods. A pharmacist was busy running scripts up and down the stairs because there was nobody to collect the scripts from the shoot we usually use.
“It was a sign of appreciation from everyone involved. The joint statement from the heads of the five regional healthcare trusts, as well as the head of the ambulance service, stated that we would all pull together and we did.”
“One of the patient’s daughters, for example, popped out to get us some buns in case we didn’t get to take a break. There was a lot of appreciation shown! And, others on the ward chipped in and did a number of tasks that wouldn’t usually be part of their role. There was a lot of teamwork going on and we all pulled together. It was a good day,” she said.
Here’s hoping our nurses get what they deserve (pay parity), safety concerns are taken seriously, and some solutions are tabled to ensure the current situation improves.