Thoughts on RCN Congress 2017 in Liverpool

One of our London staff members Alexandra Murrell attended this year’s Royal College of Nursing Congress held between the 13-17 of May in Liverpool.


She sent her reflections on the event to School Newsletter.

“I have been 3 times to RCN Annual Congress since I qualified as a nurse in 1985. I went to the first one in 1993 at Bournemouth, and this was full of fascinating debates. The expanding roles of nurses working autonomously in minor injury centres, the debate about decriminalising cannabis, and fringe meeting about air pollution increasing the risk of asthma. There was a lot of discussion at that time about nursing becoming a degree course and how important this would be.

The second time I went was in 2007 which was held in Harrogate. On this occassion I spoke about overseas nursing in relation to a short trip I had taken to Pakistan following the devastating earthquake in 2005. At that time there was an active Pakistani nurses group, who I found out have since been disbanded perhaps because many work visas ended. As a result, many had to leave the UK and return to Pakistan. The 2007 Congress had a motion about increasing awareness and testing for hepatitis C, a potential career threatening illness at that time. However, the good news is that using combination therapy with the newer medications now available, the chances of being cured are much higher. There were concerns voiced about the then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt cutting the funding to some NHS services, however, the scale of these cuts seem very trivial now 10 years on. Dyslexia was discussed in relation to working with students with this condition at a fringe meeting. At the congress Money was collected for a nurse’s fund, and Noreena Hertz who is now economics correspondent on ITV made a rousing speech on helping poorly paid nurses and asking footballers to contribute a days’ pay to help nurses. Obviously, this was before food banks were a normal part of every UK town. Some nurses present thought this was patronising, however, the money collected went to The RCN Foundations Nurses Hardship Fund. See 

Ten years on what has changed, this time the mood was very different in Liverpool. Liverpool was the city I did a short course in tropical medicine in back in 1989. At that time the city was very run down and still trying to recover from the Hillsborough disaster. The city of Liverpool has re-invented itself since as a tourist destination, with cruise ships stopping for people to go to the Beatles Experience and art museums and Slavery museum. 

The mood at the Congress was quite cynical, resigned, exhausted, for so many British nurses. The combination of 12 hour shifts, CQC inspections, revalidation, targets, lack of beds, problems accessing social care have ground down many nurses. RCN Congress had responded with a number of fringe meetings, on Zen, stress-busting relaxation, Bowen therapy, yoga, laughter yoga, Mindfulness, and guided deep therapy. I have to confess I did not go to any of these, this was a complete change from previous congresses.

I did go on a walk about the history of Liverpool and was shown the old children’s hospital, the seamans venereal disease clinic, and was stunned by the statistics on cholera and typhus prevalent in the city last century. This was a fascinating walk on the development of public health in Liverpool. I also went to a talk about the campaign to raise funds for a statue of Mary Secole which is now in the grounds of St Thomas Hospital. Mary Seacole a Jamaican nurse who also went to Crimea and provided care to the wounded as Florence Nightingale did but she is less well known For an insight into her life click here. 

I also went to a discussion on 12 hour shifts, and the mixed picture of the research on their impact. There were concerns expressed that nurses were taking breaks and were discouraged from having short power naps, a valuable way of managing night shifts for many people. There has been some research linking shift work to increased diagnosis of breast cancer and diabetes. Apparently half of nurses prefer 12 hours and half prefer 7.5 hour shifts. What research found was that as nurses become older they prefer shorter shifts, so they can spend time  with their children every day. There has been concerns about fatigue that is common in 12 hour shifts, particularly after 10 and 11 hours of work. RCN continues to research the impact of working patterns.

The mood lifted with the arrival of politicians Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron. Theresa May sent a letter stating that she values nurses, though no one appeared to believe her. I did listen to a number of debates, concerns expressed about lack of care for autism this motion expressed need for research by RCN, which was not carried as RCN argued case for not being able to fund research into autism. A motion of concern about Mental health cuts, was carried. Another motion about reducing the number of clinical placement hours was not carried.

A motion that was carried was about nurses with mild dementia being allowed to work in specific areas as a nurse and not feeling stigmatised. This was quite a landmark that RCN members understood the value of accepting that early dementia is not a reason to be retired.

There was a resolution about re-banding pay scales, another way of trying to increase pay. Before Congress, a number of nursing members had voted for industrial action. This is a huge change in nurse culture in UK. Yes after strikes by midwives in 2014 and junior doctors in 2016, people views and experiences have changed. Striking by nurses is not uncommon eslewhere, I remember a nurse friend leaving to work in Australia and shocked that nurses were on strike in 1987. Nurse strikes have also happened in South Africa and Kenya.

A debate which was changed as a matter for discussion was one about not making cycle helmets compulsory. I was surprised that the RCN Dorset Branch was against this proposal. I have been cycling for years and I always wear a helmet. There is clear evidence that cycle helmets prevent face and head injuries, evidence that should make them being compulsory uncontroversial. The statements mentions Denmark and Holland where helmets are not compulsory, however there is a huge difference from cycling in the UK and cycling in those countries. In both Denmark and Holland there are large networks of cycle paths so most cyclists are not encountering lorries or other vehicles which reduce the number of injuries and fatalities there.

British nurses are looking East for ways of reducing stress by mindfulness and other techniques to keep going, rather than looking West. It is difficult to predict the mood of next years congress and whether the state of nursing will be healthier. It is evident that nurses feel devalued currently and that much more effort is needed to make it an attractive career. Maybe a change of government will bring some hope.”