An NHS nurse has opened up about the pressures facing healthcare staff, as the row over pay continues in the Senedd.

He also accused the government of "hiding behind Westminster", after the First Minister said he couldn't "magic up money" to pay for a wage increase.

“It’s quite soul-destroying,” said Matthew Tovey, speaking to The National today during a break from his busy hospital shift.

“Morale is on the floor. Even when you're not in work, you’re thinking about work – if that makes sense.

“What's going to happen on my shift? Will we have enough staff? Are there going to be enough beds?

“Have I missed something?”

When he’s not at work, caring for Covid patients on a High Dependency Unit in the south of Wales, Matthew is an active campaigner, fighting for a pay rise with his trade union, Unite, and the “NHS Workers Say No!” group he set up.

The National Wales: Matthew Tovey presents his petition to Downing Street (Photo: Matthew Tovey)Matthew Tovey presents his petition to Downing Street (Photo: Matthew Tovey)

He’s organized protest marches, put together an all-Wales Facebook group for NHS staff to connect, and this summer he presented a petition calling for a 15 per cent pay rise to 10 Downing Street, signed by more than 800,000 people.

He speaks to colleagues about the problem while on shift, and while they’re burned out and demoralised, he says that appetite for action is growing.

“Every shift is like a rollercoaster, I’ll be honest – people struggle to take in anymore information, they’re so tired,” he told The National.

“My job is to empower people – to say ‘we are going to do it, let’s fight.’

“With the unions involved at the moment – I think it’s like a glimmer of hope for people, that something’s happening.

“There’s definitely more anger on the ground, people willing to be more organised.”

READ MORE: Burnout: Exhausted Welsh workers speak

NHS pay was the subject of a heated debate in the Senedd yesterday afternoon. A motion tabled by Plaid Cymru called on the Welsh Government to commit to improving on the 3 per cent pay increase that was rolled out last month, but the motion was voted down.

The debate saw Health Minister Eluned Morgan repeat the infamous “magic money tree” line of former Conservative PM Theresa May, as she expressed support for “fair and affordable” NHS pay, but said that the Welsh Government’s hands are tied.

The government's funds are largely allocated by Westminster through "the Barnett formula", which distributes money to devolved nations based on population numbers.

Raising the award above 3 per cent, she said, would be “incredibly difficult”, adding: “What would you cut?

“You have to be serious about politics. You are not serious.

“It's about the language of priorities.”

For Matthew, however, and for Wales’s top trade unions, the problem of NHS pay is the priority.

The National Wales: Healh minister Eluned Morgan said yesterday that increasing NHS pay was not "serious"Healh minister Eluned Morgan said yesterday that increasing NHS pay was not "serious"

Helen Whyley, director at Royal College of Nursing Wales, said: “With at least 1,700 nurses vacancies in NHS Wales, the Welsh Government has to ask itself if it can afford not to pay nurses fairly.

“Without a fair pay rise, nurses will continue to leave in their droves - safe care will be compromised, and in turn patients’ lives could be put at risk.”

She added that using a pay rise to attract new, permanent staff would save the Welsh NHS money by reducing its reliance on expensive temp agencies.

Matthew agrees.

“I think people think we’re being greedy, but we’re not – the NHS is central to society,” he adds.

“When you’re ill, you need someone by that bedside with adequate training – it’s essential for quality of care.

“We aren’t able to do it, because we haven’t got the staff.

“It’s not even just about the pay, as such – it’s about getting people back on the wards, getting these departments running again, tackling these waiting lists.”

The National Wales: Matthew on duty (Photo: Matthew Tovey)Matthew on duty (Photo: Matthew Tovey)

Last month The National reported that around 240,000 people had been waiting more than nine months to start hospital treatment, an increase of 856 per cent from 25,000 in February 2020.

READ MORE: Wales in new scanner funding amid record NHS waiting times

Adding to the pressure is bed shortages.

Ongoing Covid-19 infections are expected to increase demand, along with the usual winter flu surge, but care staff shortages in the community – down to a mixture of Brexit and ongoing poor pay and working conditions - are also a problem:  Older and more vulnerable patients are unable to be discharged without care provision in place, and so take up hospital beds longer than necessary.

Bed occupancy in Matthew Tovey’s health board, Cwm Taf Morgannwg, is at 95 per cent.

“They seem to be hiding behind Westminster a bit,” Matthew says of the Welsh Government.

“I always aimed the [pay] campaign at central government, because I sort of believed the faff in the beginning, that we need funds to be available from London.

“I do understand – but there’s £1.5million sitting unallocated in the Welsh Government’s budget, yet they’re saying there’s no money in the pot.

“They can’t hide behind Westminster all the time.”

In fact, the Welsh Government confirmed in its Supplementary Budget this summer that £2billion in unallocated funds were being held.

READ MORE: Meet the group leading the fight for women's economic equality

Helen Whyley of RCN Wales added: “Let’s be clear - NHS staff pay is a political decision by the Welsh Government, and our economic modelling shows that an increase to the pay rise is affordable.”

Critics on social media, meanwhile, have pointed out the government’s comparative lack of hesitation in funding the private sector in a bid to secure new jobs.

At least £5million in public money was spent supporting Ineos Automotive in its short-lived plan to open a new assembly plant in Bridgend. Last year the company, run by billionaire Brexiteer Jim Ratcliffe, announced that it would instead be opening its site in France.

BBC Wales reported in 2018 that £19million in grants had been awarded to Aston Martin Lagonda for “job creation, skills training and Research and Development” at its plant in St Athan, south Wales, which opened in 2019.

The company nevertheless announced in March this year that it was cutting around 200 jobs at the site.

READ MORE: Burnout: Why work in Wales doesn't pay

Retail giant Amazon, meanwhile, received more than £12million in public support to open its Swansea distribution centre more than a decade ago. A BBC Panorama documentary in 2013 revealed harsh working conditions at the site, with an undercover reporter describing the pressure of shifts as “unbelievable”.

Whatever the reasoning or political instincts behind the Welsh Government’s stance, it’s clear that unions – and indeed staff – are unlikely to back down.

The National Wales: Nurses protested on the Senedd steps last year for a 15% pay increase (Photo: Huw Evans Agency)Nurses protested on the Senedd steps last year for a 15% pay increase (Photo: Huw Evans Agency)

“We recognise the [Welsh Government’s] financial frustrations, but Unison’s aim is to secure the best possible deal for our members,” said Paul Summers, regional manager for Unison Cymru.

“However, if urgent talks fail to boost the award, our UNISON Wales health committee has already agreed a ballot for industrial action will be triggered.”

GMB Union, meanwhile, said: “It isn’t good enough – we’ve made it very, very clear.”

GMB is beginning the process of balloting its members on industrial action that would be “appropriate” given current pressures. The union says it will reconsider if a further offer is made, but it would have to be “considerably” higher than what’s currently offered.

“We understand the situation, but they have to understand our members have to have their say,” the union added.

“We represent them and we think they deserve it.”

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