THE majority of Scottish nurses are willing to take strike action while feeling undervalued by government with one in three forced to skip meals to feed their family or to save money during the coronavirus crisis.

That is the "shocking" conclusion of a new study which exposes a worsening crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland with nearly all frontline key workers saying they are suffering mental health issues.

The responses from hundreds of Scots nurses found that over one in four (26%) say they planned to leave their role in the next year with a poor work-life balance (15%) and poor pay (18%) being the primary reasons.

The survey details shared with the Herald by grassroot health worker support group Nurses United and Nursing Notes which lays bare the toll of the coronavirus pandemic on Scots health workers who are saving lives across the country, reveals that despite the clap for the NHS, over one in three (34%) admitted to being physically assaulted in the past year.

Royal College of Nursing Scotland said the findings which come in advance of Scottish Government pay discussions today (Monday) were "very concerning".

It comes as Professor Fiona McQueen, Scotland's Chief Nursing Officer joined some of the UK's most senior nurses and the nursing regulator to encourage the profession to “speak up” if they feel unsafe at work amid the latest Covid-19 surge.

Professor McQueen, colleagues across the UK and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) put their names to a letter recognising the worsening situation and the impact on staff.

It called for the ongoing need for nurses to “respond flexibly, including potentially working outside our normal roles or places of work”, as many have done since the pandemic began.

The study found that a huge 97% felt undervalued by government with over half (55%) of Scottish nurses saying they were frequently understaffed at work with three in four (76%) say it led to a compromise in patient care (76%).

READ MORE: Revealed - The scale of "hasty" move of elderly from hospital to Scots care homes over coronavirus

Nearly nine in ten of Scots nurses who took part in the study said their mental health had been negatively affected by work with an average absence of 10 days in the past 12 months for this reason.

Some 82% said they had been verbally assaulted at work, with over half (51%) saying they had experienced bullying in the past year.

The Herald:

The Prime Minister during  a nationwide clap in July celebrating the 72nd anniversary of NHS

RCN Scotland associate director Eileen McKenna said they had found as early as last summer that nursing staff continued to feel "undervalued, under pressure and unhappy with low staffing levels"

"As a result, there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of nursing staff considering quitting the profession," she said.

“These findings are very concerning. Nursing staff are worn down and working under intense pressure every shift.

"We need to ensure that nursing is attractive, well-paid and meaningfully supported, otherwise, we risk many of our members leaving the profession – at a time when the nation needs them more than ever."

Some 659 Scots nurses took part in the survey run between September and November with 12% saying they had missed a rent payment and 58% saying they used credit cards to pay bills.

With nearly three in four saying they had had seen real-terms drop in take-home pay in the past three years, it is not surprising that nearly all believed they deserved a pay rise.

And 60% said they would take strike action up to and including the withdrawal of non-critical patient care.

Anthony Johnson, lead organisers of Nurses United, “I think it’s pretty obvious to us all right now how important nurses are to our safety and health.

"Being a nurse was challenging even before COVID-19 and when we can’t afford to feed our families or even have the time to see them, it’s no surprise that our nurses are leaving in droves.

READ MORE: Revealed: The 'absolutely staggering' postcode lottery of Scots care home deaths

"What we need is for the Scottish Government to put their money where their rhetoric is and give Scottish NHS workers a restorative 15% pay rise."

RCN Scotland is currently campaigning for a substantial pay award, that "values the contribution of nursing staff to the health of the nation".

The Herald:

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon outside St Andrew's House, the headquarters of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh during the nationwide Clap for Carers initiative to recognise and support NHS

It is also seeking the implementation of Scotland’s Health and Care (Staffing) Act, the legislation designed to support safe staffing levels in Scotland’s NHS and care homes.

One Scots nurse Pauline Brady said: "People are hearing more widely now about the struggles nurses face both financially and with their mental health as a result of increased pressures and pay cuts. For me it’s about restoring the balance between the professional responsibility, accountability and pressures felt by nurses who are earning up to 20% less than other, equally qualified public sector workers.

"We are not asking for more money we are simply looking for a restorative 15% pay increase which recognises the profession we work in which allows us to feed our families."

Melanie Gale, a Scots Nurses United member added: "All nurses want to be appreciated and valued but we've been burnt out, undervalued and forced into using foodbanks for a job we love.

"Within Scotland it's imperative that we award NHS workers a restorative pay rise and all parties should listen to the frontline.”

The joint nursing officers letter recognised that there are "already sustained additional pressures".

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Unsung heroic Glasgow nurse is commemorated in opening of emergency hospital

“Staffing shortages due to sickness or caring responsibilities will exacerbate the pressures and despite actions to date to address this, the impact on staff both personally and professionally will be profound and potentially prolonged throughout the coming months," it said.

As health and care services “continue to be under extreme pressure”, the nursing leaders urged staff to “speak up if you see things that are unsafe”.

“This will help to make sure that appropriate steps can be taken and help to ensure that people can be cared for as well as possible,” the letter added.

Pointing to the NMC Code, the nurse leaders reiterated that professionals “must continue to adhere to the core principles of nursing and midwifery practice”.

It went on: “As registered professionals we should always practise in line with the NMC code and use our professional judgement, taking account of the realities of an abnormal emergency situation."

In addition, the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of staff continued to be a cause for concern for the nurse leaders.

“While you’re caring for others it can be challenging to find the time to take care of yourself, but it is so important that you do,” the letter said.

The Herald:

Nearly half a million people have signed a 'Claps Don't Pay The Bills' petition to the UK Parliament 

In November, Nicola Sturgeon said that health and care workers in Scotland are to be given a £500 payment as a "thank you" for their work during the pandemic.

The First Minister announced the one-off payment to thank NHS and care staff for their "extraordinary service" in 2020.

It was to be paid to all full-time NHS and adult social care staff, with a proportional share for part-time staff.

The Scottish Government said that the next meeting on pay will take today.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise that many nurses are having to work in very different clinical situations due to the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 and appreciate the effect this will be having on some. Executive nurse directors are working hard during this time of unparalleled change to ensure nurses continue to be receive the clinical professional support they require. We are determined to fully support all our nurses and everyone working in health and social care are deeply grateful for their continued hard work, commitment and professionalism. Their vital contribution to our efforts to save lives during this pandemic is valued hugely.

“Additional funding is being made available to NHS Boards to enhance the support they provide for staff and planning is underway to establish a Workforce Specialist Service, which will help to support staff who experience difficulty accessing confidential assessment and treatment for mental health.

“Nurses in Scotland are already the best paid in the UK with the current pay deal providing a 9% pay rise over three years to top band staff. The Scottish Government, NHS employers and union representatives are working in partnership on the approach and timetable for negotiations to secure a new pay deal for 2021-22. The Cabinet Secretary for Health meets regularly with RCN and other NHS unions, the most recent meeting being on December 30 where pay was discussed.

“We are clear that bullying and harassment is unacceptable in any circumstances and we expect all health boards and their employees to act in line with the values and behaviours expected of everyone in NHSScotland. We expect health boards to ensure any reported incidents are taken seriously and fully investigated.

"The NHS Scotland Bullying and Harassment Workforce Policy provides a supportive environment to employees seeking an early resolution to bullying or harassment concerns. It is also a formal mechanism to address unresolved, significant or persistent bullying or harassment, or both.

“We acknowledge the findings of the survey and will consider carefully with them and all our partners what more we all might do so that more of our nurses know where and how to access help and support.”

The Herald:

Last week Annemarie Plas (above) founder of Clap for Carers distanced herself from the newly relaunched Clap for Heroes after being targeted with “hateful” abuse on social media.

The 36-year-old mother-of-one, said she had opted to distance herself from Thursday's  planned applause and “will no longer seek to raise further awareness of it”.

She said: “Since announcing the return of the applause yesterday, I have been targeted with personal abuse and threats against myself and my family by a hateful few on social media channels.

“Irrespective of their views and reasons for believing this is an acceptable way to behave, I did not set out to make a political statement and will not put my loved ones at risk.

“I have no political agenda, I am not employed by the Government, I do not work in PR, I am just an average mum at home trying to cope with the lockdown situation.”

The return of the weekly ritual has been met with a mixed response online, with some NHS workers asking people not to clap, and just stay at home.

The statement continued: “The idea of bringing back the applause was only to bring some optimism and positivity to the country, not to make a political comment about the state of the nation.

“It has never been the intention of either myself or Clap For Our Carers/Clap For Heroes to lobby government or suggest that clapping is a substitute for anything else.

“If people want to make a statement about the world we live in or have a desire to instigate change in our systems, there are ways to do it."