Nurses United’s Lead Organiser, sets out why we need to remember Nurses of Colour on this International Nurses Day.

Molly Jo Johnson, an Anglo-Indian Nurse who came to the UK in 1965

In 1965, Molly Jo Johnson reached the shores of the UK. She was an Anglo-Indian woman. She was a Nurse, Midwife and Theatre Nurse with over 15 years of experience and would have been the equivalent of a Senior Sister at that time. She had £15 to her name, as that was all she was allowed to bring with her. Molly was also pregnant and had her 5 year old son, Chris, with her.

Most important to me, Molly Jo was also my future Grandmother. 

Times were tough for Molly. Her 15 years of skills and knowledge weren’t valued when she first came here. Instead of working as a Registered Nurse, she first started out as a Nursing Auxiliary on the wards. It took months for her Nursing ‘pin’ to come through and for her value to be recognised. It cost £6 of that vital £15 she had been able to bring over, at a time when the UK was desperate to get nurses in.

Molly Jo’s Bank account from when she arrived in the UK

Finally, Molly was able to do the work she had been trained to do, but her experience and talents weren’t recognised. Despite being a Sister in India, Molly would spend the next 30 years of her life being pushed back from promotion. She applied to be a Health Visitor, 3 times throughout her career in the UK. In all 3 cases, she wasn’t accepted, but the white students she trained were.

When Molly retired at the end of her career in 1989, she retired as a Senior Sister. It took almost 30 years for her to get back to where she started because she was from India.

So why does this all matter on International Nurses Day?

It matters because, for Nurses of Colour in this country, Molly’s story will resonate on a very personal level. Little has changed in the 55 years since my Grandma stepped off that boat.

All across this country, there are thousands of “Molly Jo’s” who are still going through the same thing. Nurses of Colour are three times more likely to be bullied while at work. Even though they make up 20% of the Nursing workforce, they’re less than 7% of the senior management and spend most of their careers ‘on the frontline’. 

Is it any surprise that Nurses of Colour have said that they have felt pressured to work in COVID-19 areas? Are we seriously expected to believe that their experiences, like those of my Grandmother’s, are not a factor in 70% of the Nurses who have died from COVID-19 coming from a BAME background?

As a nurse, from a family of Anglo-Indian nurses, it makes me angry to see what this Government’s policy has been during this crisis. COVID-19 has laid bare the realities of what it is to be a Nurse of Colour in this country. It has also reminded us who really cares for our health and who we need to care for too.

That is why Nurses United UK, the organisation which I am proud to work for, is saying that in this Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, we should work to end the system that puts Nurses of Colour at risk and show that we care equally for our carers. We are calling on the Government and the people of the UK to support nurses like my Molly Jo.

Most importantly, we need to be there for all our nurses, so that they can be there for us. That means mandating Cultural Ambassadors throughout the NHS to help identify and address biases in our workplaces. This Government needs to provide a safe working environment, with enough PPE and safe staffing ratios to keep nurses and our patients protected. If we value our nurses, we need to start as we mean to go on by instituting a universal Living Bursary of £12,000 and dropping tuition fees. Finally, we need to restore the dignity of our profession by increasing pay by 10% after a decade of real term pay cuts.

It does not have to be like it was for my Grandmother. The future is what we collectively demand. So let’s demand better for our nurses.

By Anthony Johnson, the Lead Organiser for Nurses United UK, a Registered Nurse and Health Visitor.

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