Peter Carter has used his final keynote speech to urge nurses to use their voices to change the nursing profession. He alluded to the fact that nurses regularly put patients first, yet they must be more vocal so that politicians notice the integral role that nurses have in sustaining the NHS.
In his speech, the outgoing chief executive and general secretary of the RCN spoke about how key priorities for the RCN were not being addressed just seven weeks after the general election. These included the decision for NICE to cease work on developing safe staffing levels for nursing and the proposals to force non-EU residents to leave the UK after six years if they do not earn £35,000. This plan, said Dr Carter, could lead to 30,000 nurses leaving the NHS by 2020, because 'very few nurses earn over £30,000'. This was shortsighted and a waste of the money already spent on recruiting and training them, he added.
He also commented on the government's perceived underinvestment in the NHS, saying: 'Let us be under no illusion. The years of cuts will take years to repair. This is a problem right across the UK. Cuts to posts, downgrading, dilution of skill mix, resulting in care being compromised and patients suffering. Far too often nurses are then held responsible when it's the systems that have failed and nurses who are picking up the pieces.'
He went on to pay tribute to the work of the RCN and its members in the face of the difficulties in the health service. He also urged nurses to play a more vocal role in the opposition to policies that have a detrimental effect on their profession, citing the example of the recent ballot on whether to accept the government's pay offer, where only 16% of members responded.
He said: 'You have the power to change things for the better in relation to staffing levels, terms and conditions and your pay, if only you believed it. Far too often nurses and health care assistants put themselves last in the line. I implore you to put yourselves first more often.'
Dr Carter received a standing ovation at close of his speech and paid tribute to his successor, Janet Davies.
Dr Carter announced that he would step down as chief executive of the RCN in February. He will be replaced by Janet Davies, the RCN's director of nursing and service delivery, in July.