‘Hidden angels of the NHS’: ‘Forgotten’ healthcare assistants on strike over back pay row across Northants

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Healthcare assistants, described as “the hidden angels of the NHS”, are on strike in a fight to get the back pay they believe they deserve after “years of inequality”.

Staff members from Northampton and Kettering General Hospitals across two trusts have taken a stand and decided to walk out from Tuesday to Thursday (June 4 to 6).

This follows a ballot by union Unison, which saw 90 percent vote to take part in the strike, and they joined the long-running industrial action across the NHS.

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The picket line of healthcare assistants at Northampton General Hospital on Wednesday morning (June 5).The picket line of healthcare assistants at Northampton General Hospital on Wednesday morning (June 5).
The picket line of healthcare assistants at Northampton General Hospital on Wednesday morning (June 5).

However, Unison claims HCAs routinely undertake clinical tasks, such as taking blood, performing electrocardiogram tests and inserting cannulas.

A spokesperson for the University Hospitals of Northamptonshire NHS Group refused to issue a comment on the strike action when approached by this newspaper.

People are right in describing HCAs as the NHS’ angels’

The Chronicle & Echo attended the picket line at NGH on Wednesday morning (June 5) and firstly spoke to Josh Curtis, the Unison branch chair and workplace steward at NGH.

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HCA Anita Brown has worked in the surgical outpatients unit at NGH for more than 15 years and has worked in the care industry for the past four decades.HCA Anita Brown has worked in the surgical outpatients unit at NGH for more than 15 years and has worked in the care industry for the past four decades.
HCA Anita Brown has worked in the surgical outpatients unit at NGH for more than 15 years and has worked in the care industry for the past four decades.

“We’re out here to secure the back pay we believe we are owed,” Josh said. “HCAs have been underpaid according to their own NHS banded contracts. They’ve been underbanded and the trust has acknowledged that for a number of years.

“What we’ve asked for is something comparable to the rest of the hospitals up and down the country. We ask for six years back pay.

“The initial offer we got from the trust was one months’ bay pack, which obviously sends a bit of a message to the staff that we’re perhaps not being valued – or at least not as much as other hospitals around the country. We’re here to secure a better deal.”

The hope is that the back pay will alleviate the struggles of these NHS workers during the cost of living crisis, as well as proving to them that they are valued essential workers.

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Many cars travelling along Cliftonville Road honked their horns in support of the NHS workers on strike.Many cars travelling along Cliftonville Road honked their horns in support of the NHS workers on strike.
Many cars travelling along Cliftonville Road honked their horns in support of the NHS workers on strike.

Talking about the fact that HCAs do more jobs than their pay banding and job descriptions outline, Josh added: “In a lot of organisations you end up with job creep, but in the HCA role especially it has been particularly bad.

“This campaign started as a survey amongst our HCAs asking what kind of jobs they do and overwhelmingly I didn’t speak to a single one who wasn’t doing tasks that would push them up into a band three role.

“The trust has unfortunately been very happy to allow this to happen, in order to get the care the patients need at a cheaper rate. It’s not fair on HCAs and it’s leading to staff leaving unfortunately. People are right in describing them as the NHS’ angels.

“When you see people who aren’t holding people’s hands in their dying moments getting paid more than you, it can be very difficult to stay. We’ve been running off the good will and dedication of our staff members for years now and eventually, the way the economy’s going, that’s going to run out.”

The walk out follows a ballot by union Unison, which saw 90 percent vote to take part in the strike, and they joined the long-running industrial action across the NHS.The walk out follows a ballot by union Unison, which saw 90 percent vote to take part in the strike, and they joined the long-running industrial action across the NHS.
The walk out follows a ballot by union Unison, which saw 90 percent vote to take part in the strike, and they joined the long-running industrial action across the NHS.

‘We’re in the shadows, we’re not recognised’

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HCA Anita Brown has worked in the surgical outpatients unit at NGH for more than 15 years and has worked in the care industry for the past four decades.

She was lifted from a band two to three from April 1 this year, but is fighting to see her colleagues given the same treatment and for her own back pay. This is the first time she has taken part in industrial action.

Anita outlined many ways in which HCAs go above and beyond their pay grade and she said: “I’ve been doing that for years and you just get on with it.

“By bringing in HCAs, they’re getting more out of the work and more bang for their buck by us doing it. Because we’re so conscientious as well, we’re there for our patients and we don’t moan about it.”

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Ahead of being lifted to a band three, Anita questioned the guidelines of her contract as a band two and was asked why she had chosen to “rock the boat”.

She added: “We’re very much undervalued. Sometimes it’s taken for granted. Some of the specialist nurses don’t even know how to do our clinics because we run them. Sometimes when we’re off sick, they don’t have a clue. They’ve got so used to us doing it.”

Anita shared that when one of the consultants was told of the industrial action, their “face dropped” and said they would be “on their knees” with all of the HCAs on strike.

“I’ve had all my health conditions and I’m still there,” said Anita. “I’ve been told I’ve got to give up my job, I don’t want to. I love my job.

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“The reason I don’t go to nursing or upgrade is because I want to give that face-to-face care for my patients. To make sure they walk in and out and they feel they’re a priority, number one and their care is absolutely the top of the agenda.

“We’re here for our patients. HCAs get forgotten. We’re in the shadows, we’re not recognised. We do so much. If we weren’t that cog, it would fall.

“We need our specialist nurses, consultants, doctors and surgeons, but we’re the backbone and the ones who are face-to-face and in more connection with the patients. We’re their reassuring hug or chat after they’ve had their bad news.”

‘HCAs are the glue that manages to keep everything functioning within the NHS’

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Jim Doherty, the branch secretary for the Northampton hospitals, says the NHS up and down the country has been utilising band two workers to do band three work.

“A lot of people seem to get confused about whether this is for a pay rise,” he said. “It’s not, it’s a pay claim and people need to be paid fairly for what they’re doing. The senior figures need to be accountable for what they’re paying employees.”

Jim says the fact that HCAs go “the extra mile” is indicative of the type of people who decide to work in care, social care and the healthcare industry in general.

From ward walks he has been on, he previously heard nurses and doctors ask that HCAs do not go on strike as the “wards wouldn’t function properly”.

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Jim said: “The HCAs are the frontline workers who keep everything together. Nurses and doctors do their roles, but I believe the HCAs are the glue that manages to keep everything functioning within the NHS.”

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