Originally, the Royal College of Nursing was founded as a professional organization. The simple “College of Nursing”, as it was called then, was created by 34 nurses who wanted their training recognized. They sought to raise the standards of nursing, which until then had not been a highly regarded profession. They were explicit that they were not creating a union.
Nursing was a calling, as was being a doctor. Veteran doctors from the pre-war days used to divide their time between their private practices, which brought them income, and work at a charity hospital, for which they were paid nothing.
Queen Mary became the official patron of the College in 1925, an indication of the regard held for the profession. In 1935, when the Trade Union Congress wanted to promote a 48-hour week for all hospital employees, the Faculty of Nursing refused to accept it. In response, the TUC called the College “an organization of voluntary snobs.” An alternative explanation for their attitude is that the nurses thought it would be wrong to leave a patient in need on the basis that 48 hours of work had been completed.
In 1939, King George VI gave the College of Nursing its “Royal” title, and during World War II the organization went to great lengths to ensure the supply of nurses for the armed forces.
So far, the story is of a professional level, dedication, vocation and growing respect. But after the creation of the National Health Service in 1948, very gradually things began to change. The College first registered as a union in 1976, but it still had a rule that prohibited labor actions. Then, in 1995, that rule was abolished.
In more recent times, the Royal College has become increasingly political. In 2019, decided to lobby for the decriminalization of prostitutionforks membership has split on transgender issues. It is this evolution that has brought us to the point where, for the first time in its history, members of the Royal College go on strike.
Leadership says nurses will continue to staff urgent care, such as chemotherapy and pediatric intensive care. But the truth is that many of the services that are not going to support are still essential. It is vital, for example, that people with cancer or a heart condition are diagnosed quickly, or have problems they may not be aware of discovered through scheduled operations. Cancers, in particular, tend to grow quite quickly, so time is of the essence.
A great friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer late last year, but the diagnosis and then treatment by the NHS was delayed for weeks. The plan was that he would receive radiotherapy and chemotherapy. But, when he finally had to receive chemotherapy, he was too far gone. I will never know if a quicker diagnosis and treatment would have saved his life. But what is certain is that, in general, our ability to diagnose and treat life-threatening conditions like cancer should never be affected.
In fact, I would go further and say that while this might be an outdated view, I consider any retirement from work in the health care field, where disruption could lead to needless deaths, immoral.
Yes, it can be the case that nurses are paid less than they should be. But that’s not a good enough excuse. They cannot claim to be in a particularly honorable profession – with all the social benefits that comes with it – and behave in the same reckless manner as striking train drivers and postal workers.
Also, if there are not enough nurses because the pay is too low, it is the responsibility of NHS management and the Government. I hope that there are many nurses who refuse to participate in the strike out of conscience and a sense of duty.
“Duty”: there is now a word that seems to have gone out of fashion in an institution that was once so admirable. For the Royal College, it has been a long decline and fall.
James Bartholomew is the author of The welfare state we are in