more than half of National Health Service Trusts and health boards are providing or planning staff food banks, new research suggests, as the cost of living soars.
In a survey laying bare the catastrophic impact rising costs of food, energy and housing are having on healthcare workers, NHS charities together and the Observer have discovered that thousands of NHS employees: including nurses – are already seeking help from food banks, and the numbers are expected to increase in the coming months.
The news comes amid an ongoing dispute with the government over nurses’ pay, as the Royal College of Nursing prepares to stage more strikes on January 18-19 after dating for the first time last month.
More than half of those surveyed also said they were looking at ways to provide food support to staff other than food banks, with initiatives like voucher programs, subsidized canteen meals and free breakfasts.
The charity, which supports all UK health and trust boards, said for the first time in NHS history its members had to provide charitable funds for staff unable to pay basic living costs. Traditionally, charities fund causes such as staff training and research.
Of the 34 NHS charities that responded to the survey, 21% said they had an active staff food bank or were setting up one, while 35% said they were looking into it.
In the six responding food banks, it is estimated that almost 5,000 employees used them monthly, of whom around 550 were nurses. In an indication of how quickly the cost-of-living crisis has affected institutions, three of the food banks have opened in the last three months.
Ellie Orton, Chief Executive of the NHS charities Together, they called it “a perfect storm,” adding that it was “heartbreaking” that health care staff working under such pressures had difficulty eating and had to use food banks.
“It’s really important that as a country we continue to support staff, to understand the pressures they are under. This is unprecedented,” he said.
Staff at St George’s hospital in Tooting, south London, who are believed to be teaming up with the nearby Earlsfield food bank to offer help, said they were struggling with the basic costs of living – borrowing money from colleagues and cook for each other.
A hospital administrator visited a food bank for the second time in her life last week (the first time was during the pandemic) because her fridge was empty and she was struggling with debt. “I know that many people in the hospital are dependent on other people. I’ve had other staff members ask me if they can borrow money, and if I can help, I do,” said the woman, who is in her 20s.
A government spokesperson said: “We value the hard work of NHS staff and are doing everything we can to support them in these difficult times, including giving more than 1 million NHS workers a pay increase of at least £1,400, as recommended by the independent NHS Pay Review Body, on top of the 3% from the previous year when wages were frozen in the general public sector.
“We know this is a difficult time for families across the country. That’s why we’ve moved swiftly to provide support, including an energy price guarantee, which is saving the typical household around £900 this winter, as well as £400 in bill payments and £1,200 for households more vulnerable”.