In what will be the largest walkout in the history of the NHS, nurses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will go on strike for two days in December, just ahead of Christmas. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the strikes will take place on December 15 and 20 over its pay dispute and unsafe staffing levels.
According to the BBC, RCN - one of the biggest healthcare unions in the UK - said it had "no choice" when ministers refused to reopen negotiations, while the government stated it could not afford the 19% pay increase asked. The strike will not affect emergency care, but it will disrupt routine services.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said: "Ministers have chosen strike action. Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve."
The RCN is required by trade union statutes to provide life-sustaining care throughout the strikes, which will last for 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm. This means, some urgent cancer services, urgent tests and scans, and continuous care for vulnerable patients will be preserved alongside A&E and critical care, however exact staffing numbers on strike days will be negotiated by local health bosses and union leaders.
The walkout, however, appears very certain to add to the backlog in non-urgent medical treatment as a record seven million people are already on the waiting list in England. GP services, however, will be unaffected because nurses working in practices were not eligible to vote.
Furthermore, because a series of individual ballots were held at NHS trusts and boards rather than a single national ballot, nurses at more than 40% of England’s hospitals, mental health, and community services do not have the right to strike because turnout was too low in those elections. Walkouts are permitted in all of Northern Ireland’s health boards, as well as all except one in Wales, the Aneurin Bevan.
Why are nurses going on strike?
The strike action stems from what RCN has called an “exploitation of nursing staff (that) cannot be tolerated any longer” as the pay of some experienced nurses has fallen by 20% in real terms since Conservatives took power in 2010. They had called for a pay award of 5% plus inflation – a total of about 15%.
But the government said the average basic annual pay for nurses would increase from about £35,600 to around £37,000 from March 2022, a rise of just 4%, despite the rate of inflation being the highest in the UK since the 1980s.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary for England, said that the RCN’s demands were unaffordable and expressed his "deep regret" that union members would be protesting. He emphasised that in making its award, the government had complied with the independent NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendations. Additionally, despite a public sector pay freeze, it came after a 3% salary increase given last year in acknowledgment of efforts done during the pandemic.