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Swiss nursing referendum [print version]

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The Swiss Nurses’ Association, backed by doctors and patients’ organisations and the country’s trade union confederation, has gathered sufficient support to force a national referendum on nurse training and pay and conditions. The referendum takes place on 28 November.

The first demand of the “strong nursing initiative”, as it is called, is for the government and cantons to train enough registered nurses in Switzerland to meet the country’s nursing needs. If this demand were implemented, it would end the current reliance on staff trained in other countries.

Second, it says the profession needs to be properly valued, which would be achieved by the government guaranteeing appropriate working conditions and salary rates. According to an Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) health survey published in 2019, the pay of nurses compared to the average salary in Switzerland is one of the lowest amongst member countries.   

The government has come up with a compromise solution, which it says it will implement if the vote goes against the initiative. It may be in for a shock: results of an opinion poll announced in the middle of October show 82 per cent in favour and just 11 per cent against. 

Debate inspired by the referendum move has made the Swiss population much more aware that nursing shortage is global. The World Health Organization’s first State of the World’s Nursing report, published in 2020 but using data gathered before the Covid-19 pandemic, revealed a global shortfall of 5.9 million nurses. 

Almost 90 per cent of these nurse shortages were in low- and lower-middle income countries (where Britain recruits thousands of nurses), with huge gaps in countries in Africa, South-East Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. If the study were to be repeated now the pandemic impact of nurse deaths and long Covid would make the shortfall even greater. 

Relatively rich countries like Switzerland and Britain have never in modern times trained sufficient medical and nursing staff to meet their own needs. In Switzerland a staggering one-third of its nursing staff are foreign nationals. 

• A longer version of this article is on the web at www.cpbml.org.uk