Health staff said they are prepared to strike over a regional pay cartel as they staged a noisy demonstration outside a hospital yesterday.
Around 50 Unison members took advantage of breaks or free time to wave banners outside the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital yesterday morning, as a stream of passing cars honked support. They are protesting over the health trust which runs the institution signing up to explore a deal which critics say will both leave health workers worse off and damage patient care by providing a "postcode lottery" on pay and conditions.
One nurse, who took part in the hospital protest but did not want to be named, said strike action would be an option. "I feel strongly that we're being forced into this. We're being told we don't have a choice. It will impact on patient care and we're already working really hard."
Another nurse said she was "passionate" about the issue, and said: "We need to take action to stress our concerns.
"This is not only going to have implications for us as healthcare professionals from a personal point of view, but also on patient care."
The RD&E NHS Foundation Trust is one of 20 in the region which has paid £10,000 to collectively explore a separate deal for staff, which Unison claims would equate to a 15 per cent cut for the lowest paid workers, when the impact of both pay and conditions are taken into account.
Sue Orwin, chairman of the regional health executive for Unison and branch secretary for Torbay, said two of Torbay's health trusts had decided to stay out of the cartel, meaning that a two-tier system could exist within the region, and even within specific teams of staff.
She said both the South Devon Health Care NHS Foundation Trust and the Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care Trust has decided that regional pay would be "detrimental to patients, staff, and their organisation."
She said: "In the long term, we believe that those who can afford to move out will, and highly skilled clinical staff will leave the area. That's clearly bad for the economy, and will result in poor patient care."
Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw, a former Health Minister, last night met members of the Royal College of Nursing to talk through their concerns. He said regional pay was not the answer to difficulties created by the "botched upheaval" of the NHS, and said changes should be negotiated and implemented nationally.
In a joint statement, the South West Pay, Terms and Conditions Consortium said health trusts had to respond to "serious financial and operational challenges" facing the NHS now and in the future.
It is now working to gather feedback towards a business case, which will contain recommendations to go to each trust's board later this year.
Steering group chairman Chris Brown said: "By promoting financially healthy NHS organisations we can preserve employment and reduce the need for redundancies. Our analysis shows that up to 6,000 NHS jobs in the South West may be safeguarded by changes to staff pay, terms and conditions."