LONDON — As Covid tore its devastating path across the globe, millions of Brits stood on their doorsteps every Thursday at 8 p.m., clapping and banging on pots in appreciation of the country’s health workers. Less than three years later Wednesday, An estimated tens of thousands of nurses in England have walked off the job as part of an unprecedented strike that has rocked the country’s much-loved but troubled National Health Service.

Nurses go on strike to demand a pay rise 5% above inflation, currently at 13.4%, but the government says it can’t afford it. They are also striking in highlighting the long-term deterioration of service amid chronic health care workforce shortages and rising costs of living.

Nurses have told NBC News the health service, which is paid for by taxes and provides free point-of-use treatment, is not recruiting enough staff, is struggling to keep up with demand and has to cancel major operations or send patients to hospitals as soon as possible. up to 150 miles away.

Nurses continue to strike over wages and conditions
Members of the Royal College of Nursing Union take part in a strike outside King’s College Hospital in London on Wednesday.Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Matt Smith, 43, is a pediatric intensive care nurse at a London hospital whose department receives patients from emergency rooms across London. Despite the vital work he does, he says he cannot afford to live in the capital, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Although his salary has risen less than 2% this year, well below inflation, he and other nurses face a litany of rising costs.

“Sometimes it takes an hour and a half to get to work and my salary this year was 1.9%, while the train company is raising prices 5-6% next year. Inflation is 11%,” he said. «Food prices are ridiculously high, energy prices are high.»

On top of this, the nursing shortage is making the job increasingly stressful for medical staff and patients, added Smith, who is among thousands on strike. Even when beds are available at her hospital, she said, sick children are often redirected from her hospital to other medical centers located far away.

“We have to decide if we can accept this patient, if we have nurses or if we have to send them to another location and that could be 100 or 150 miles away, to another intensive care unit,” he said.

national health service crisis
Ambulances wait outside a hospital in London as the National Health Service struggles to cope with demand for its services. Aaron Chown/AP

According to the group of health experts Nuffield Trust, it is estimated that there are 17,000 nursing positions vacant on any given day in the health service. Last year, nurses’ salaries might have fallen about 10% below 2011 levels, she said.

“When I started, there was always some pressure, especially with the winter flu and things like that, but we never had the staffing shortage that we have today,” said Smith, who like other nurses NBC News spoke to asked that their hospitals will not be named to avoid disciplinary action. «I can never remember a time when we had so many patients that we couldn’t admit, who are being transferred elsewhere.»

He added: «People can’t take it anymore, that’s why so many people are leaving.»

According to Nuffield, between 2021 and 2022, 1 in 9 nurses left active duty.

Nurses are not alone: ​​Britain is facing a slew of strikes in the public sector, with teachers, train drivers, postal workers and even driving test examiners all voting for industrial action, dating back to the strike-filled 1970s and 1980s.

But while there were nursing strikes in the 1970s, the Royal College of Nursing, the union that represents the majority of nurses in England, staged the first strike in its 116-year history on December 15 and 20. More strikes are scheduled for February 1. 6 and 7.

Emergency treatment will continue during the strike days, but many planned operations will be cancelled.

Meanwhile, the health service, normally a great source of pride for the British, has been in crisis due to short- and long-term factors, including the fallout from the pandemic. Controlled by the British government, the service was established after the Second World War as a way of providing ‘cradle to grave’ care for the whole country.

Today, its massive budget of 153 billion pounds ($187.5 billion) is paid for through general taxation, which the Conservative government is reluctant to raise. As of September, there were a record 132,000 unfilled health services jobs, nearly 10% of the total workforce of more than 1.3 million, according to the figures. posted by NHS England.

Wait times for emergency care and elective surgery have been steadily increasing, your data showsand in December, more than 10 hospital and ambulance trusts declared critical incidents, meaning they are unable to provide «normal operating functions» in a safe environment.

As many as 1 in 3 people who called the 999 emergency number waited more than three and a half hours, NHS England said in its monthly ambulance performance report.

A government public information campaign has been urging people not to call 999 and instead use the 111 service, which deals with less serious cases.

A record 54,000 people waited more than 12 hours in emergency departments in December, according to NHS England. The same month, ambulances took an average of 10 minutes and 57 seconds to reach the most urgent incidents, the service’s worst performance on record, compared with its goal of seven minutes, its statistics showed.

Royal College of Nursing secretary general Pat Cullen told BBC Radio on Wednesday morning: «They need to address the issue of wages, our nurses are seriously struggling with the cost of living, to stay afloat, pay their bills and take care of their families.»

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he had held «constructive» talks with the Royal College of Nursing and other unions.

Industrial strike in the UK as nurses join the picket lines.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing picket outside a hospital in Norwich on Wednesday. Joe Giddens/PA via Getty Images

But he stressed the impact of the strikes on patients: «Patients are understandably concerned about the prospect of more strikes by nurses: the previous two days of nurse strikes saw around 30,000 elective procedures and outpatient appointments cancelled.» .

NHS England declined to comment on the conditions in the hospitals that the nurses described. The Department of Health and Human Care declined to respond to substantive points raised by NBC News about patient safety and staffing levels.

Kristy Cody, 49, a nurse for 10 years, said she was on strike to warn of the dangers of understaffing levels in her pediatric oncology department at a major London hospital.

He described a shift in which three nurses and two nursing students cared for 15 patients. She was the only nurse qualified to give chemotherapy or blood products to some very sick children and had to help another ward do the same.

After the shift, he said that there were several more like that, the nurses cried together.

“We gave each patient everything that was on their list that day: everyone received their medications, everyone received their [observations]everyone has a clean bed,” he said.

“But that’s all they got: nobody got a conversation, nobody got a hug. They did not understand what we are looking for in nursing, that care, warmth and empathy. We don’t have time for that anymore.»