NHS nurses are due to strike for two days in December in a dispute over pay and patient safety.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will step into action on 15 and 20 December in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, industrial action is being put on hold while wage negotiations continue.
The strike vote by more than 300,000 members of the RCN was the largest in the union’s 106-year history.
The union has demanded a pay rise of at least 17% for its members, adding that years of low pay are “pushing nursing staff out of the profession and putting patient care at risk”.
Nurses had given the government a deadline to open “detailed negotiations” and threatened to announce strike dates for December.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “My offer of formal negotiations was rejected and instead ministers have opted for strike action.
“Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and insecure staff, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”
Payment requirements ‘not affordable’
The Health Secretary praised the hard work and dedication of the nurses and expressed his deep regret that some will go to war.
Steve Barclay said: “These are challenging times for everyone and the economic circumstances mean that the RCN’s demands, which on current figures are a 19.2% pay rise, costing £10bn a year, are not affordable.”
The RCN is calling for an increase based on the RPI inflation rate (which was 14.2% in October) plus 5%.
In England and Wales NHS staff have seen an average rise of 4.75% this year, in Scotland the offer was a flat rate of just over £2,200, while in Northern Ireland no pay award can be approved without an Executive in place.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – who previously held the post of health secretary – said he has a “great sympathy” for nurses are struggling with the cost of living but insist the best way to help them is to bring down inflation.
Data from the London School of Economics found Salaries for experienced nurses have fallen by 20% in constant prices over the last 10 years. This means that nurses effectively work one day a week for free.
It mirrors recent research by the health charity Nuffield Trust, which said NHS staff pay remained lower in real terms in 2021/22 than it was in 2010/11.
NHS vacancies at record high
Nurse job vacancies hit a record 47,000 in England between April and June, an increase of a fifth on the previous year.
The RCN says 25,000 nurses in the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s register in the last year.
Members of Parliament from the cross-party health and social affairs committee described the personnel issues this summer as “the biggest workforce crisis” in the history of the NHS.
The trade union does not only blame wages, but also heavy workloads.
HARMFUL AND divisive STRIKES ARE IN NOBODY’S INTERESTS
The government says that the nurses’ salary demands are unreasonable. The nurses say they can’t afford to work like this anymore.
And right in the middle of the two are patients who are finding out whether the announced strike dates will mean their long-awaited NHS appointment will be delayed. Again.
Both sides say emergency services will not be affected. And minimal staff will remain in wards at hospitals that have supported industrial action to ensure patients are not at risk.
The government is issuing reassuring messages to allay patient fears – but no telling what will happen to missed appointments, scans, operations and other procedures.
This is because, as the nurses’ union, RCN, points out, industrial action must have some form of impact, otherwise there is no point in striking.
So the electoral rolls will be paused temporarily and the number of seven million has to grow. It will put more pressure on the nurses and other health professionals who are trying to cut through that backlog.
The nurses argue that only better pay will help with recruitment and retention. There are thousands of vacancies – and nurses continue to leave the profession. Their colleagues say they are being asked to step in to fill those gaps by working longer and harder.
The nurses may be joined by other hospital staff when the unions elect their members. It could see paramedics, call handlers and non-medical hospital staff such as porters join the picket lines.
Hospitals will not be able to function normally. And any missed appointment must be rescheduled. It takes time and staff and resources, and the NHS is under enormous pressure.
Morale among nurses has long been low, and many are still trying to process what they have been through. But things are about to get worse.
I have spoken to nurses from both sides – those who want to strike and those who don’t. The divisions are already there and will intensify. It will be really harmful.
It is in no one’s interest: patients, nurses or NHS managers, that this dispute drags on.
:: Is your deal or operation set to be affected by the strikes? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a WhatsApp message to 07583 000853
The RCN is not the only health union threatening strike action.
A vote among Unison members closes on Friday, and among Unite’s NHS members next week.
Midwives and physiotherapists are also voting to take action and junior doctors will be voted in the new year.
Meanwhile, ambulance staff in Scotland are due to walk out on Monday.
Labor blames Torynegligence‘
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused the government of failing to negotiate with the RCN.
He said: “Patients are already not being treated on time, strike action is the last thing they need, yet the government is allowing this to happen. Patients will never forgive the Conservatives for this negligence.”
What about patient safety?
Unlike strikes in other sectors, some nurses will be exempt from taking part in strike action – called “deviations” – to maintain safe staffing levels and ensure patients are not harmed.
An RCN spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring life-sustaining services are in place and will confirm exemptions with individual employers in due course.”
Nurses could follow suit in Northern Ireland in 2019 when staff went on strike.
The RCN has described on its website how staff were managed at three levels:
• complete exemption, where an entire service is staffed as intensive care units
• limited to a Sunday service or Christmas Day service
• limited to a nocturnal model
Could temporary workers replace striking nurses?
The RCN council is clear: “If you are a temporary worker assigned to work in an NHS organization on a day of strike action, we at the RCN expect you not to cover that shift.
“You can ask your agency to find you alternative work in an organization that is not on strike, for example a private hospital or nursing home.”
However, that doesn’t mean agency workers have to follow the advice – and some shifts can be lucrative.
A recent freedom of information request by Labor revealed that one in three NHS trusts paid an agency more than £1,000 for a single shift last year, and one in six trusts paid more than £2,000.