Leaving social care to become a lorry driver gave one worker a £10,000 pay rise overnight.

Dan White, 40, had loved his job supporting vulnerable adults, while partner Yoana Peacock worked in operating theatres for the NHS.

But they have both left their jobs for better pay elsewhere.

NHS workers have been striking across Wales and the UK as they seek better wages and working conditions, with more action to come.

People leaving the profession is just one reason why there were 1,800 patients medically well enough to leave hospital earlier this month, but could not be discharged because there were no staff to care for them in the community.

Recent figures also showed all-time record highs in December for ambulance response, discharge from hospital, and handover of patients to A&E times.

Both the UK and Welsh governments said there were record numbers of staff working in the NHS, with the Welsh government adding it was “committed to improving conditions for care staff”.

So why are workers such as Dan and Yoana leaving social care?

It was his own addiction that inspired Dan to work with those experiencing drug and alcohol issues, and homelessness.

He was part of a hospital-based team tackling the revolving door of admissions from patients with those backgrounds.

“They’d get obliterated, fall asleep on the pavement and a member of public would phone an ambulance and they’d get brought in,” said Dan, from Rhoose, Vale of Glamorgan.

“There was a big problem with patients being discharged and readmitted within a very short space of time – sometimes the same day. It was putting a real pressure on beds.”

‘Passion not enough’

He experimented with drugs during his teenage years and was dependent on Class As by his early 20s.

“I knew I didn’t want to live my life that way but felt like I couldn’t stop,” he said, explaining he went in and out of rehab before finding a centre run by those in recovery themselves.

“The people I met through my various attempts at getting clean really inspired me,” Dan added.

“It made me realise that this was what I was passionate about and what motivated me.

“I felt so grateful for what I’d received from them, I thought that if all those years causing harm to myself and my family, wider local community and wider society as a whole – if that’s going to count for anything then it’s to use that negative, bad experience to do something good.”

But passion was not enough, he said, citing poor pay and large case loads as the reason for leaving his role in the Midlands.

Dan said: “In that job even before this cost of living crisis, I was really struggling.

“Sometimes I’d be doing the weekly shop on a credit card and paying it off the following month, which then puts you on the back foot for the following month.”

He found the job “very rewarding”, adding: “If I could earn the same as what I do driving a truck, doing that job, I would go back tomorrow.”

Many of the pressures felt by the NHS are put down to a shortage of social care staff.

On average, there are about 1,200 patients in Welsh hospitals awaiting a care package or assessment before they can be discharged, which has caused record delays in emergency departments as beds are not available for others to be admitted.

The domino effect means there are lengthy waits for ambulances and tens of thousands of hours lost every month as crews wait outside hospitals to hand over patients.

Waits are not confined to urgent care, as there are more than half a million patients in Wales waiting for routine treatment, but capacity is limited by the availability of beds and staff.

This is something Dan’s partner Yoana Peacock is well aware of.

Image caption,

Yoana left the English NHS to do the same job in the private sector

The 39-year-old works in orthopaedic surgery as an operating department practitioner – a type of nursing role supporting either the surgeon, anaesthetist or on the recovery ward.

Originally from Bulgaria, she started working for NHS England in 2003, but left in 2015 to do the same job, for more money, in the private sector in Cardiff.

“I worked in a big general hospital,” she said.

“But it was a chaotic department. We changed line managers almost every six months, so staff felt unsupported and we didn’t retain staff very well.

“We were running on a skeleton staff. In the private sector, staff retention doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue and when you have a full team everything seems to run smoothly.

As a mum to a teenage daughter and a 10-month-old son, she said she now has a better work-life balance.

“I have a better pay package and my shifts are not as stressful as they were in the NHS. I have a good management team behind me and when you have happy people around you everything runs smoothly,” she added.

The Royal College of Nursing estimates there are 3,000 nursing vacancies in Wales.

Given the legal obligation to safe staffing levels on wards, those vacancies are typically filled by existing staff working longer hours, or agency staff.

In the past year, the NHS in Wales spent just over £260m on agency staff – an increase of more than a third on the previous year.

‘More staff than ever’

“There are more staff working in NHS Wales than ever before,” the Welsh government spokesman added.

“This year we are investing a record £281m in training and professional education and almost 400 more nurse training places will be created thanks to an 8% increase we’re providing in the NHS Wales training budget.”

He also said the government is committed to improving conditions for care workers, adding: “We are investing £70m to ensure all social care workers continue to get paid at least the Real Living Wage.”

The UK government has been asked to comment.