“Every Day We Do Not Strike, Patients Are at Risk”

Fighting Covid and defending the National Health Service. Interview with the nurse who was fined £10,000 for organising a socially distanced protest


Interview with Karen Reissmann


Karen Reissmann is a long-standing socialist, a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party in the UK, and a nurse from Manchester. She is on public sector union Unison’s National Executive Committee (but is speaking here in a personal capacity). In March 2021, Karen was fined £10,000 for organising a protest over the government’s NHS pay offer of 1%. In 2007 she was victimised at work for speaking out and organising against cuts and privatisation. Questions by Phil Butland

How has Covid affected health workers?

It’s been awful. We have not had the right PPE (personal protective equipment), some of it was up to 6 years out of date, there was no acceptance that Covid was airborne, so we still have just paper masks to use most of the time. Well over 850 health workers have died, 10,000s were extremely ill and many still are suffering with Long-Covid. These workers were disproportionately Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). 93% of doctors who died, and 74% of nurses, were BAME.

We have all made huge changes, we have worked long hours to fill the ever-growing gaps. We are exhausted and overwhelmed. Health workers are used to people dying, but not in the quantity that we have seen in the last year and not our own colleagues. Many health workers have developed mental health problems such as panic attacks, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Britain seems to have vaccinated more people than, say, Germany. Is this a great achievement of Boris Johnson?

This is a great achievement of the National Health Service (NHS). Many contracts related to Covid have been given to private companies, which have completely failed to deliver. Our Test and Trace service that cost £37 billion is a complete failure, run by Serco and headed by the partner of a Tory MP. Vaccination research was funded by the government in our universities and the administration has been done by the local doctors in the NHS. That’s why it succeeded.

Health workers in the UK have just been awarded a 1% pay rise. How has the public reacted?

Health workers and the public are furious. The whole country clapped for us and we appreciated it from ordinary people. But when Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak clapped in Downing Street, people were cynical. It turns out we were right to be.

Is the money there to fund a pay rise? Doesn’t more money for nurses mean less for everyone else?

Not only did they offer 1% but they told us we should be grateful for this, after the year we have had, as some people are getting nothing! We don’t want any worker to get nothing. We all deserve a pay rise. They can afford a pay rise for everyone.

The government wasted £37 billion on a Test and Trace that does not work. This on its own would pay for a 15% pay rise for all NHS workers for 25 YEARS. Yes they can afford it but are choosing – not to tax the rich, not to tax profits over £250,000; but to continue to bailout business with grants, to replace Trident nuclear weapons (£120 billion) and build a new high-speed rail line (£100 billion+) and say there is nothing left for us!

They want us to blame each other. We need to stand together for a proper pay rise for all. Just like the banking crisis. We did not cause it, and we should not be made to pay.

You were just given a £10,000 fine for organising a demonstration for more pay for nurses. Why was the reaction so harsh?

Because the UK government has just had a year where 130,000 people died, the worst record per head of population in the world – disproportionately killing Black, poor, older and disabled people. They produced a budget that enriched the rich and impoverished the poor. People all over the UK are angry.

The UK government are desperate to stop protest, which they know could take off like wild-fire. Fining me for a perfectly safe, fully risk-assessed protest was to try and stop other people protesting. We now have the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill going through parliament, which aims to allow the police to ban any protest that is having an impact! Even if the protest consists of one person.

They fear the collective action of working class people. Just look at their awful repression of women on a vigil for a woman allegedly murdered by a police officer. The women there were demanding an end to violence against women, and were attacked by male police officers. There is a battle for the right to protest, with the government using Covid as cover and people are beginning to see this.

British nurses are contemplating strike action. Wouldn’t this just endanger patients who are already vulnerable?

Every day we do NOT strike, patients are at risk – 170,000 beds have been lost in the last 10 years; 100,000 unfilled job vacancies; 4 million people on waiting lists for operations. Not one ounce of slack in the system. We need a government that will show a financial commitment to the NHS and to its staff. Otherwise more exhausted staff will leave and more patients will be at risk. We need to get rid of a government that continues its murderous policies. Strike action by NHS workers is the start of that.

British friends tell me that the opposition to Johnson’s government is now being led by people like you and the footballer Marcus Rashford. What has happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party?

Keir Starmer, who thinks 1% is not enough but thinks 2.1% is. Who initially wanted to abstain on the new Police Bill, who criticised Johnson for not reopening schools sooner even though scientists said this would lead to 30-50,000 more deaths, who is more interested in persuading big business that the Labour Party is on their side again. The only people he is good at attacking are the left in his own party. That’s why genuine footballers who knew poverty and are not afraid to say so, have such a huge following and can stand up for poorer people when Labour does not bother.

What can people in Berlin do to support you and to fight for a decent wage for health workers?

You can offer solidarity, and you have done this. Workers across the world have common interests. But you can also fight your own government attacks, show people in the UK it is possible to fight, inspire us, and join our battle against capitalist governments whose priority always will be profit not people.