Across Britain, the rainbow pictures are coming down. But in some houses, they are being replaced with new, more political placards. ‘This home supports a pay rise for NHS heroes,’ the poster says. It’s unlikely that any politician will be brave enough to say so but it’s worth asking a question in response: is now really the time?
No one doubts that the NHS has risen remarkably to the threat of coronavirus. Doctors, nurses, cleaners and others working in hospitals deserve our gratitude for their efforts in treating those affected by this virus. In some cases, these people have put themselves at personal risk to do their jobs and ensure that the health service was able to cope with the daily flood of cases. Many medical staff working for the NHS have gone above and beyond the call of duty. But this doesn’t mean a pay rise is justified.
The weekly clap was a good way of showing support for those working for the health service. But when it comes to giving doctors and nurses and other NHS workers a pay rise, it’s important to see this in the wider context of the current economic situation.
Nine million people have been furloughed. Many of these will ultimately lose their jobs. Tens of thousands already have. Thousands of others have taken pay cuts. And even for those who aren’t yet affected, many are looking over their shoulders wondering whether their jobs are safe. In this looming recession, how many people can say for sure that they will still have their job this time next year?
And yet, as Anthony Browne points out, this economic woe has fallen almost entirely on the private sector. Those fortunate enough to work in the public sector have been, with a few exceptions, largely spared. Almost anyone in a job paid for ultimately by the government (whether it be in the health service or elsewhere) has continued to receive their full pay. In some cases, this money has come in when work has been much quieter than usual. With huge falls in the number of people coming to A&E departments, for example, there is no doubt that some NHS workers have been left twiddling their thumbs.
This isn’t to criticise those fortunate enough to be in such a position, of course. But those demanding a pay rise for NHS workers should spare a thought for those who are now, as a result of the pandemic, out of work or financially affected by this huge downturn.
In an ideal world with unlimited resources, no one would begrudge giving some more money to those working in the NHS. But this isn’t an ideal world. The final bill for the government in dealing with this crisis could be as high as £298bn, according to the OBR. Britain’s debt is now worth more than its total economy. And the UK will be paying for the fallout of this for years to come. There will be plenty of people deserving of help from the government in the months to come. If schools are to offer catch-up lessons for pupils, someone will have to foot the bill. And free school meals for kids over summer, while a good idea, is also another big expense. So while no one can doubt how heroic many of those working for the NHS have been, now isn’t the time for a pay rise.