By Sachin Ravikumar and Ben Makori
LONDON (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of nurses across England walked out of hospitals on Wednesday, on strike over low pay that they say leaves them struggling to cover their bills and extreme stress at work that has pushed many to the edge.
Nurses, like ambulance workers, train drivers, teachers, postal workers and employees in many other sectors, are taking industrial action in search of better pay and conditions as inflation tops 10% while their wages rise much more slowly.
"This job is slowly killing nurses," said David Hendy, a 34-year old nurse joining around 100 others on the picket line outside University College London Hospital.
That was one of dozens of protests taking place as part of strikes by the Royal College of Nursing - the second wave of its industrial action, having walked out en masse for the first time in its 100-year history in December.
“The nursing workforce in the last 10 years has been through hell and back. We've got through COVID, I've got colleagues who died from COVID. I myself have had it three times,” Hendy said, holding back tears. "Morale is rock bottom."
The government has so far resisted pressure to meet nurses' demands for a discussion about pay, insisting it will not revisit the 4%-5% it awarded in 2022/23 on the recommendation of a pay review body, and will only discuss the pay review process for 2023/24.
Health minister Steve Barclay told reporters during a visit to a hospital on Wednesday he was disappointed by the strikes and that meeting nurses' pay demands would be unaffordable.
"We want to work constructively with the trade unions in terms of this coming year's pay review process, recognising the pressures of inflation and recognising the pressures on the (National Health Service)," he said.
Others on the picket line echoed Hendy's concerns, stressing that the dispute was about more than just pay.
"The workload is phenomenal now and our patients are more sicker than they’ve ever been," said Victoria Banerjee, 44, a mother of two teenagers who has been a nurse for 20 years.
Nevertheless, with inflation at 10.5% according to data released on Wednesday, and food and drink prices rising at the fastest rate since 1977, pay still sits at the heart of the protest.
"We’ve been struggling over the last few years. Definitely bills are going up and our pay is not reflecting that," said Jenny Gyertson, 42, who has worked as a nurse for two decades.
"You’re basically living month to month. If something goes wrong, like the car breaks, or the boiler breaks or there's an unexpected bill, it's very, very difficult and it's very stressful."
(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar and Ben Makori; Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Writing by William James; Editing by Alison Williams)