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April 8, 2007 - Today the Sunday Mail (U.K.) ran an article about the May Day for Nurses campaign, which asks U.K. football (soccer) stars to donate one day's pay to what the Mail calls "a hardship fund that can be claimed by the poorest nurses across the U.K." Steve Dineen's piece is mostly about the involvement of the football stars. And the supportive but vague quotes from them and the campaign founder, political economist Noreena Hertz, do little to explain why U.K. nurses are so desperate, or how this campaign might help in the long term. But the piece does direct readers to the Mayday campaign web site, which explains the campaign's hope that "the awareness raised will hopefully make the government give nurses their due." That site also argues that nurses are severely underpaid relative to other public workers, and even goes beyond the standard "nurses are noble"-style rhetoric of the Mail piece to note that lower nurse staffing means worse patient outcomes. We thank the Mail for its coverage and Noreena Hertz for this innovative campaign to highlight some key nursing issues.

The Mail piece is headlined "Old Firm Answer Nurses Mayday with a Payday." It reports that two prominent team captains, Neil Lennon of Celtic and Barry Ferguson of Rangers, have decided to support the campaign. Since the captains of these leading Scottish teams each earn an estimated £30,000 (roughly US $60,000) per week, that means about £4,500 each for the campaign. The article also reports that 42 players and more than 16,000 fans have so far pledged their support. The piece includes nice quotes from both players (e.g., "wonderful idea," "very worthy cause," "[n]urses are not always rewarded for their good work"). The plain-speaking Hertz says she hopes the participation of such big stars will be a "massive kick up the butt to the Premiership teams that haven't signed yet." The piece says she hopes to raise £2 million.

The article also gives Hertz some space to explain why she started the campaign:

I've wanted to do something to help nurses ever since I was young. When I was a teenager, my mum was really sick and the nurses were fantastic. They were kind and supportive, not only to my mum but to me and my sister. After having that first-hand experience, you realise how much they do and they get a really rough ride here in the UK. So I wanted to get footballers to do what rock stars did at Live 8. But we've had a really great response from people from all walks of life wanting to donate a day's wages. Hopefully, from now, it will keep rolling and we will be able to make a real difference.

Obviously, this is also nice, but pretty vague as to why nurses are so important. Unfortunately, phrases like "kind and supportive" tend to reinforce the unskilled handmaiden stereotype that is part of the reason nursing faces the current shortage. And the piece does not explain how this one-time campaign is going to address the nursing crisis, which has deep social and economic roots.

However, the last line of the piece directs readers to the May Day campaign site, and that has a much better explanation of why Hertz started the campaign and what she hopes to accomplish by May 13. The site includes some basic facts about the nursing shortage in the U.K. It notes that the "looming shortage" of nurses will "risk patients' lives" because "[w]ards with the lowest nurse-to-patient ratios see one in four more deaths than wards with the highest ratios." The site focuses on the financial pressures on U.K. nursing students, and the difficulty most new nurses have in finding permanent jobs. It also stresses the low pay nurses get--noting that "[o]ver a quarter of nurses are forced to take two or more additional jobs just to be able to continue nursing"--which it links directly to the fact that the profession remains "90% female." (See Why nurses? sublink.)

The May Day site argues that nurses should not be "paid less than all other professional key public sector workers" (including "tube drivers"), that nursing students should not have to quit because they cannot afford their rent, and that National Health Service job freezes should not prevent new nurses from working in the face of a looming shortage. And its "Manifesto" makes two other key points:

4.   The government must commit to addressing the projected shortage of nurses that is looming - now. We cannot afford to wait. All our lives are at risk if the nurse-to-patient ratio falls, because insufficient nurses mean slower recovery rates and a greater chance of death.

5.   Just because nursing is a vocation doesn't mean nurses should be exploited. No one who chooses to spend their lives caring for others should find it impossible to live a decent life themselves as a consequence.

In addition, the site explains that while the funds raised from the footballers may help several thousand nurses, the ultimate responsibility to address the "nursing crisis" lies with the government and members of the public, who must

take responsibility for the kind of society in which we live, the kinds of values we want to have, and the kinds of political choices that we want our political leaders to make.

(See What's it all about? sublink.) Hertz, a prominent economist focusing on globalization issues, also discusses her supposedly fumbling attempts to get the campaign going with famous footballers in a March 4, 2007 column in The Observer.

May Day for Nurses raises several interesting issues. The name evokes many of the usual meanings of "may day": it is a kind of distress call for nurses; it clearly is concerned with the workers' issues that May Day marks in much of the world; and of course, the timing coincides with spring, a time of rebirth that fits with the campaign's efforts to help nursing renew itself. Beyond that, International Nurses Day is May 12, though we have not seen that noted in these materials.

Hertz has made some good basic points about the value of nurses and the current nursing crisis, in a very eye-catching way. We especially appreciate the May Day site's focus on nurse staffing and patient outcomes, though we wish more of that could make it into the press accounts. And Hertz seems to have anticipated at least some of the issues such a "Live 8"-style campaign might raise. She recognizes that the main long term effect such a campaign could hope to have would be to raise awareness and possibly motivate government action. Of course, if the money she raises does in fact help financially desperate nurses, that is obviously a good thing as well.

Hertz's site might have explained a bit more about what training nurses must undertake, and the technical demands their jobs make. That might have helped the public better understand why nurses need more resources, and why they make such a difference in patient outcomes. And it would have been especially helpful given the inevitable angel / "virtue script" language that such a public campaign will attract, language from which even the campaign site itself is not entirely free (e.g., "We should not continue to exploit the kindness of nurses...").

Hertz's speaking agent calls her "one of the world's leading political economists," so she might have included a little more detail about just what governmental measures she would like to see. The only specific measure we see on the May Day site is the demand that new nurses be "guaranteed work upon graduation." But what would Hertz do to raise nursing pay? To provide better financial support to nursing students? To ensure adequate clinical staffing?

And as a public figure with such a longstanding focus on globalization, Hertz might also have explained the global nature of the nursing crisis. For instance, one troubling issue is the growing reliance of nations like the U.K. on nurses drawn from poor nations in Africa and Asia, nations that suffer from nursing shortages whose consequences are especially severe. The U.K. has grappled with possible limits on international recruitment for some time. (See our page on nurse migration.)

Hertz might have noted that athletes like the football players might actually need more nursing care than other fit people, because of the risk of injury (see photo at right). So it might even be in the personal best interests of such persons to take an active role in efforts to strengthen nursing.

We thank Noreena Hertz and the May Day campaign for this creative and high profile idea. In fact, since football (soccer) is probably the most popular spectator sport in the world, and the types of problems this campaign targets are global, we also wonder whether Hertz would like to take the campaign worldwide. Of course, there's no reason to limit it to football.

See the article "Old Firm Answer Nurses Mayday with a Payday" in the Sunday Mail from April 8, 2007.


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