Nurses across the UK will strike for the first time over two days in the Christmas fortnight after ministers rejected their pleas for formal talks NHS pay.
The Royal College of Lactating (RCN) said its members would stage national strikes – the first in its 106-year history – on December 15 and 20. Senior sources said the fighting was expected to last for 12 hours on both days – most likely between 8 and 20.
The unprecedented national industrial action will seriously disrupt care and is likely to be the first of a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by other NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
The RCN said it had confirmed the dates after the UK government rejected their offer of formal, detailed talks as an alternative to industrial action.
“Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they wanted to strike for the first time,” RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said. “My offer of formal negotiations was rejected, and instead the ministers have chosen to strike.
“They have the power and the means to stop this by starting serious talks that address our dispute.
“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.”
The strikes will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The RCN will announce which particular NHS employers will be affected next week when formal notices are submitted, it said.
In Scotland, the RCN has paused to announce strike action after the Scottish Government reopened NHS pay negotiations.
Earlier this month, the RCN announced that care workers at the majority of NHS employers across the UK had voted to go on strike over pay and patient safety.
The RCN said that despite a pay rise of around £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses are 20% worse off in real terms due to successive below-inflation rates since 2010.
The RCN said the economic case for paying carers fairly was clear as billions of pounds were spent on agency staff to close gaps in the workforce.
It added that in the past year 25,000 nurses around the UK had left the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s register, with poor pay contributing to staff shortages across the country, which it warned were affecting patient safety. There are 47,000 unfilled NHS registered nursing posts in England alone.
Other health unions also pick workers for industrial action. They have been warning for months that workers are quitting in large numbers over wages and low moraleleading to staff shortages in hospitals and other parts of the NHS.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth is the health secretary refusing to negotiate with nurses? Patients can’t already be treated on time, strike action is the last thing they need, yet the government is letting this happen. Patients will never forgive the Conservatives for this negligence.”
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, insisted he was “hugely grateful” for the nurses’ hard work and deeply regretted the industrial action. However, he refused to open formal talks, describing the RCN’s demands as “not affordable”.
“Our priority is keeping patients safe,” Barclay added. “The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimize disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”