The doctor: ‘Some of our colleagues are relying on food banks’
Vassili Crispi, 25, Leeds
I am originally from Italy, but came to the UK to study at medical school. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and have been a junior doctor for the past year and a half.
Junior doctors are the backbone of the medical profession, providing care to patients 24/7, 365 days of the year. The title doesn’t adequately reflect the job: we are called “juniors” because we are in training, but the risks and responsibilities we shoulder are enormous. Day to day, I may be the most senior doctor on duty, looking after three or four wards, caring for as many as 90 patients. Quite often we don’t have enough resources or staff.
This impacts on our mental and physical wellbeing. We see people die – as we often saw during Covid – and then, after five minutes, have to brush it off because someone else is sick. Some of our colleagues are relying on food banks, and many more have to take up extra shifts so they can pay their bills. That means you can be working nonstop seven days a week, on top of having to prepare for exams and training. When I was working nine-to-five last year, I would often work on Saturday and Sunday just to make ends meet. It is draining and has an impact on care. I’d rather patients see a well-rested doctor than one who is absolutely shattered.
We were all told it would get better after the pandemic, but it’s just gone from bad to worse. Now, I come home late, shower, collapse into bed, wake up, eat and repeat it all over again. My partner works a standard eight to five weekday job so my night-time shift patterns mean we often don’t cross paths for entire weeks despite living in the same home. It’s no wonder so many doctors are burnt out.
Despite all of this, the government wants us to do more. It’s not physically possible: we are at breaking point. Doctors are bleeding out of the workforce: they are leaving to go to countries where they are more highly valued. We watch them go and wonder if they will return.
It’s a shocking situation, but I’m encouraged to see the tidal wave of support, not just to fight for our wellbeing, but to protect the NHS for future generations. Every healthcare worker should be paid fairly, and we must fight for our junior doctors to be paid their worth; otherwise the government might not have a workforce to rely on any more.
The academic: ‘People do not vote to strike in their droves unless something is really wrong’
Jo Edge, 42, London
I’m a medieval historian. I love what I do, but the golden egg of a permanent academic role is vanishingly rare.
I was awarded my PhD in 2014, aged 34. Since then, I have been on four different fixed-term contracts, lasting from one year to four years. And I’m seen as one of the luckier ones – 90,000 staff in higher education are precariously employed, on hourly rates or fractional contracts. There are people who are experts in what they do, teaching highly specialised courses, being paid by the hour – and buckling under the weight of the work they are expected to do. Many aren’t paid through the summer, or find they are being let go at the last minute. It means no opportunity to do research or publish, which is how we improve our chances of getting another job. Staff are being worked to exhaustion. How does that benefit students?
During the lockdowns, students were told they could not defer their studies and were forced to study online. I found teaching online terrible. I was working seven days a week, but ended up putting in extra office hours on Zoom because my students were so isolated and depressed. They ended up smashing it; I was so proud. But students should be hopping mad – at the Conservative government and university managers.
People from minority backgrounds aren’t getting promoted, skewing the pay gap. Women are often seen as the carers of their department, and do all that pastoral support work that doesn’t get them promoted but is nonetheless seen as essential. There’s a noticeable reticence to promote women, even those who meet the very high criteria in place.
Some say: “You earn more than nurses – who are you to say you’re struggling?” Well, nurses are going out on strike, too – and we support them. All these problems are connected. People do not vote to strike in their droves – in winter, during a cost-of-living crisis – unless something is really wrong. It’s a mess, but we’re the adults in the room, saying: “These are the problems – you’re ignoring them and we’re not. Please talk to us.” We need something to change, and the way we do that is by withdrawing our labour, together.
The paramedic: ‘The NHS has always relied on the goodwill of its workforce, but that is gone’
Glenn Carrington, 58, Peterborough
I’ve been a paramedic for 36 years. I love helping people. I have delivered more than 100 babies. There’s the tension and stress of the delivery, then that baby comes out, you hear the cry and you give them to Mum. The satisfaction, the joy. One of those babies recently came up to me on the job. He was 21, 22. He said: “Is your name Glenn? You delivered me.”
For me, everything was hunky dory until 12 years ago. All of a sudden, Jeremy Hunt’s austerity kicked in, and we started seeing doctors’ surgeries close, hospitals downgraded or turned into car parks. NHS dentists disappeared from the face of the earth. We were thinking: “What’s going on?” We had six hospitals here; they’ve all been knocked down or downgraded.
How do you eat an elephant? A little bit at a time, and that’s what has happened: since 2010, we have been seeing this steady decline of the NHS. It’s not creeping privatisation – it’s galloping now, and it is a deliberate political choice.
You’re seeing money coming into the NHS and funnelled out into the private sector. I’m sitting next to paramedics and nurses who work for agencies; that never used to happen. I’m not political: I’m not Labour, I’m not Conservative, I think they’re all as bad as each other. But it is a fact that the Conservatives have been ideologically opposed to the NHS. They spin, they lie and we fall for it.
The cuts have real consequences. If somebody’s having a heart attack, we’ve got to be there in eight minutes; with a stroke, it’s 18 minutes. The quicker we get there, the better their outcome. In 2010, we’d get there within 10 minutes and that guy is walking out of the hospital two weeks later, going home to his kids. I recently heard a story where some colleagues only got to the caller having a stroke after an hour. It’s like a dystopian movie.
When someone dies on you – it does happen – they say a little bit of you goes with them. When somebody dies and you know damn well that you could have done something to help them, a lot of you goes with them. We didn’t sign up for that. The public needs to know that, for the first time in my 36 years, when they dial 999 it’s now a 50/50 chance of whether the ambulance is going to get there in time or not.
Working through the pandemic, I saw things that people shouldn’t have to see. It was life-changing. For some of us, it was career-ending: we’ve got colleagues with long Covid who have never come back from that. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it. That’s why I’m so angry. I was really angry about Partygate. We were scrabbling around for PPE, we worked, we didn’t complain, we did our jobs because that’s what we do – and look how they’re treating us now. They clapped for us, they said we were heroes. Fast-forward to now, and we’re seen as militants.
It was an easy decision to vote to strike. It comes down to those immortal words: “Up with this, we will not put!” The last time I had a proper pay rise, above inflation, was 2010. Sean Kingston was in the charts. The NHS has always relied on the goodwill of its workforce, but that is gone. When you have managers crying because they can’t do their jobs – bed managers crying, discharge managers crying – and they’re all saying, “We have a problem,” then guess what? We have a problem.
This is a fundamental throwdown, the last stand for an NHS that will “always be free at the point of use”. If we don’t make a stand now – and if we can’t get the public behind us – by the time this lot goes from the government, there isn’t going to be an NHS. It really upsets me. I’m thinking about my grandkids.
The teacher: ‘If we do nothing, we will watch generation after generation be failed by the system’
Gawain Little, 42, Norwich
I started teaching in 2004. Currently, I teach in a primary school for children who have been permanently excluded from mainstream education. It’s challenging work, but really rewarding. You can see the difference you can make to a life that has been headed the wrong way.
I love it. It’s the best job in the world – but it gets harder every year as resources are cut. That’s tough on all children, but particularly those who are struggling because of social or emotional difficulties, who have challenges at home or live in poverty. Those are the children who need provisions the most, and the more cuts there are, the less able we are to support them. If their needs go unmet in the classroom, then you do see an escalation of behaviour. Children are often pushed to crisis by the system.
Since 2010, the amount of money going into schools started to drop dramatically. I see colleagues coming in with art resources, food for cooking classes, books for the classroom that they have bought with their own money. You put in all that extra work – but then you just get slapped in the face with pay cut after pay cut, resources getting even thinner. There are frequent staff shortages – we simply cannot get staff to apply, and to stay, on the wages we are offering.
It wasn’t an easy decision for me to vote to strike. We have tried everything else and nothing has made a difference, but we’re constantly balancing that against the impact on the students. Where I want to be is in the classroom with them, not on strike.
What convinced me I had to take this action is that, if we don’t act now, the long-term impact on those children is going to be worse. If we do nothing, we will watch generation after generation be failed by the system.
There has been a lot of support, including from parents who understand that this is about their children as well. I will be really proud to stand alongside NHS workers, postal workers, rail workers, firefighters – all of those people saying: “Enough is enough.”
The barrister: ‘Underfunding has led to a shortage of things you need for a functioning justice system’
Saul Brody, 56, Manchester
I have been at the criminal bar for 26 years and seen the system deteriorate a lot. The government would like to say that Covid brought the problems into focus, but the chronic underfunding has been happening for a quarter of a century. And it is now bringing consequences. It has led to a shortage of things you need for a functioning justice system: not enough judges, or crown court recorders, or even courtrooms. For the first time, I’ve started to see cases listed with “no barrister available”. It adds to the delays and makes society a little less safe.
The most serious consequence is the effect on victims. On the eve of the trial, cases can be postponed for up to a year because there isn’t a court available. And these can be serious cases: rapes, sexual abuse of children. A witness might have plucked up the courage to come forward after 30 years; she might have lived a life blighted by what was done to her. Then she gets a date for her day in court, prepares herself emotionally, only to hear on the day that it will now be in a year’s time. People are devastated. Some understandably drift away, saying, “I’ve had enough – I can’t keep my life on hold any more.”
That also means you have more potentially dangerous people on the streets. I recently saw a judge say to a defendant: “I was going to remand you in custody, but I’ve just been told there’s no cell space, so you’ve been lucky.” She let him walk out of the door. That was a first for me. That’s indicative of a system that has been underfunded and is now not working properly.
The October strike might have been depicted as greedy barristers looking for more money, but that is absolutely not what it was about. I work with incredibly determined, fearless, hardworking people who are not doing it for the money. I’m not a wealthy person; it hasn’t been easy for me to stick it out. At times I thought I was close to going under. But the juniors are getting the worst of it; we took action for them. A newly qualified criminal barrister earns £12,000 a year. We’re self-employed, so we don’t get any benefits like transport or pensions or healthcare: we pay for everything out of our own pockets, including petrol and parking. When I started out, I was borrowing from friends just to get to work.
Now, the people who can ride out that period are those who are from wealthy backgrounds. It will have a serious impact on our efforts to make the criminal bar more diverse and more representative of the population.
We need a re-evaluation of what’s a functioning justice system – because it is broken.
The nurse: ‘Government ministers clapped for us, but when it came to pay it was just more of the same’
Annette Heslop, 59, London
I’ve been a nurse for 34 years. My mum was a nurse, and would take me to work with her sometimes. The nursing officers saw me and said: “Come back and be a nurse.” So that’s what I did.
I have seen a lot of change. Back when I first qualified, there weren’t enough jobs. Now there aren’t enough nurses. We have had 40,000 leave in the past year.
We don’t feel like we are being treated fairly. We haven’t had a proper pay rise, we’ve been working under extreme stress, we’ve gone through Covid. Government ministers clapped for us, but when it came to pay it was just more of the same. I don’t know how they are expecting us to live. The cost of living has gone up but our wages have stayed the same. Nurses are going to food banks – that’s how bad things are.
Each day I pray that I’m going to have enough staff. There’s work, but there’s nobody to do it. Staff were already leaving because of Brexit; many of our nurses from Europe went home. It puts patients’ safety at risk because there aren’t enough nurses to look after them.
Even before the pandemic, it was bad. But I thought we’d be valued afterwards. We had to work under stress and strain. I even lost my mum to Covid: she died on Christmas Eve of 2020. It was in my hospital as well.
I was born here, but I say to other Black nurses who have immigrated here that I don’t know how the NHS would cope if they were all to go home to Africa or the Caribbean. But we are all in the lower-paid jobs; we’re not in charge. When the CEO, the executive team, the managers are all not the same race as you, you get treated differently. Black staff are being bullied, disciplined, or not getting promoted. We are looking after Black patients as well, so the inequality within the NHS also impacts inequalities in public health.
The Conservatives are not for the working people – I don’t actually know who they’re for. This government is an absolute joke. Rishi Sunak isn’t going to get anything done. They’re clueless.
It’s a tough but clear decision to vote to strike – there was no doubt about it. We have been canvassing, talking to nurses and other key workers in the NHS – we’re not joking around. Even the general public are saying: “We support you – what can we do to help?” I was at the cost-of-living rally last year, and it was brilliant to see all the different unions there. I thought to myself: “Gosh, imagine if everybody went on strike, what would happen?” And now look.
The postal worker: ‘Royal Mail don’t want human beings. They want robots’
Sandy Best, 57, Swindon
I’ve worked for Royal Mail for 33 years – first in the sorting office, then doing deliveries. My husband has been here for 43 years. Our son, who’s 20, has started working here after doing casual shifts last Christmas. Royal Mail has seen unbelievable change in that time, especially since it went into private ownership. That was the nail in the coffin.
The majority of posties like me love our jobs because we interact with the people we deliver to. During the pandemic, sometimes we were the only person somebody would see in a day. I had customers with Covid, and I’d offer to pick up their prescription or shopping. We’re not paid to do that, but posties feel it is part of the extra-special service we provide. Royal Mail likes this image of the helpful community postie and wants the kudos, but the changes to ways of working keep pushing us to work harder and faster. Posties want to provide a good service, but they are being given too much to do and that ends up with corners being cut.
We have managers who look at the delivery data as gospel, as though everyone can do top-speed at all times. This data doesn’t tell you the postie’s age, or if they are struggling with an injury, or if they have a disability. It doesn’t tell you if it’s icy or you are walking up a hill. They don’t want human beings, they want robots.
It’s sad, because I enjoy my job, and if somebody talks to me I want to be able to stop and talk. I’ve got older people on my route, people living on their own, people who are disabled or have been ill. You should be able to have a conversation – that’s what life is about.
Frustration has been building. I understand that we are causing disruption to people, but our employer is being unreasonable and our only option is to withdraw our labour. We lose money when we strike, which is hitting us hard. But if we don’t, our pay will be worth much less.
I feel that the whole country is coming to this boiling point. People are struggling, and that shouldn’t be happening. The government’s trying to crack down on trade unions, but we got more votes than Liz Truss got to become prime minister.
My husband and I are lucky because we’re older, we’ve paid off our mortgage. But even if our son wasn’t in Royal Mail, I would still passionately believe that we should fight not just for our rights, but for those of the people coming after us. Why shouldn’t they have a job that they can enjoy and be proud of, and where they are looked after well? Why shouldn’t we?
The rail worker: ‘During the pandemic we were working 12 hours a day. To then be told we’re having a pay cut is a slap in the face’
I have always been interested in transport. I was brought up with it – there are engineers in my family, we’d go on trips to train museums, and my grandad had a miniature model railway that I used to love playing with.
A few years ago I joined Network Rail in an office job for £16,500 a year. I was still living with my parents then. After a couple of years, I got a promotion. Now I’m on £25,000 a year and share a rented flat. But over the past year it has become so difficult to survive.
Before Covid, we used to get pay increases yearly and a bonus. Since then, it has degraded quickly. During the pandemic, we understood that we had to make sacrifices in order to keep the service running. Sometimes, I was working 12 hours a day – we just got on with it, for the greater good. But it started encroaching on our personal lives more and more. To then be told we’re having a pay cut is a slap in the face.
I’ve not heard anyone criticising rail workers for being on strike. All the interactions I have had have been supportive – from all demographics, too. I have heard people complaining that it’s inconveniencing them, and that’s fair enough. The strikes have made my job a lot more complicated, too. No one wants to be on a picket line; we just want it over and done with.
The media, especially the rightwing media, tries to make the case that strikes are bad and we should be grateful for having a job. It works, too. My own nana said to me: “It’s terrible, all these people out on strike – they’re all so lazy, and they want money for nothing.” I said: “Nana, I’m out on strike.” She said: “You’re different, you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
I told her we are all doing it for the same reasons. I don’t think she had really considered it – she had just been bombarded with the talking points from morning television.
That’s the biggest misconception: that we would rather be striking than at work, but it’s not the case. We have been forced into this situation, and it’s affecting us as well. My January pay is going to have three days deducted due to the strikes. I have had to be really mindful of my holiday spending. As much as I wanted to buy presents, I have had to think about rent and being able to eat.
When I was at school, my aim was always to earn £25,000 a year: I thought that would be enough money for me to survive, without getting a high-pressure job. Even a few years ago, it would have been enough to get by on. But now it’s not.
I have been on one holiday in three years, and that was just a few days in Wales. It was all I could afford. I have thought about what other forms of income I could get, but I work full-time, five days a week – other than maybe working Saturday, I’ve got no ideas. It’s a pretty grim situation.
• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.