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Members of the Royal College of Nursing union are to take part in industrial action across at least 177 NHS trusts this year.
By Sarah Dawood
NHS nurses will take part in their biggest yet strike before Christmas, in pursuit of better pay. The nurses’ union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), balloted its 300,000 members between 6 October and 2 November on industrial action, the first time in its 106-year history that it had done so for its members across all four UK nations.
Strikes will take place in at least 177 NHS trusts. These include major hospitals, such as Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College Hospital in London, the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff and Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. You can see a full list of hospitals and NHS trusts participating in the strike here.
The RCN announced on 25 November that the first national strikes will take place on Thursday 15 and Tuesday 20 December 2022. According to The Guardian, senior sources have said that the industrial action is expected to last for 12 hours on both days, likely between 8am and 8pm. Further strikes could run until May 2023. More detailed plans will be announced soon.
To qualify for legal strike action in England, Scotland and Wales, the union has to fulfil two requirements in an NHS trust: it needs 50 per cent of eligible union members to vote in the ballot, and the majority must then vote in support of industrial action.
According to the British Medical Journal, just under half of the NHS trusts in England (102 of 215) reached the 50 per cent turnout threshold. All NHS groups in Northern Ireland and Scotland will strike, and all but one health board in Wales met the threshold.
The main issue is pay. As with many public sector workers, nurses’ wages are not keeping up with the rising rate of inflation.
The NHS’s Agenda for Change sets rates of pay for all NHS workers except doctors, dentists and senior managers. Under this contract, the government announced in July that more than a million staff, including nurses, paramedics and midwives, would receive a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year, backdated to April 2022. NHS workers also received a 3 per cent pay rise last year.
The RCN says, however, that this increase has “left experienced nurses 20 per cent worse off in real terms compared to a decade ago”. The union wants nurses to receive a pay rise of 5 per cent above the inflation rate (currently 11.1 per cent). It says this would help to tackle real-terms pay cuts, support nurses through the cost-of-living crisis and show more recognition for their critical work.
The RCN says that real-terms pay cuts, as well as affecting nurses’ personal circumstances, are pushing people out of the profession and putting patient safety at risk. There are nearly 47,000 nursing vacancies in England alone. London faces the highest shortages followed by the Midlands.
[See also: Sick Britain: where have the workers gone?]
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, said: “Anger has become action – our members are saying enough is enough. The voice of nursing in the UK is strong, and I will make sure it is heard. Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work.”
People in low-paid jobs have been hit hard by the rising cost of living. Recent research from the food bank charity the Trussell Trust found that in-work poverty was on the rise, with one in five people referred to their food banks being from working households. Nurses are among those who have been forced to use food banks and accept charity food parcels. Some NHS trusts have set up their own food banks or food voucher schemes to help staff get by.
In a recent NHS Providers survey of NHS trust leaders 71 per cent of respondents reported that many staff were struggling to afford to travel to work, while 81 per cent were moderately or extremely concerned about staff’s physical health, and 61 per cent reported a rise in staff sickness absence due to mental health.
According to another study of 1,020 NHS and social care workers conducted by healthcare technology platform Florence in September, two thirds (63 per cent) of nurses and healthcare workers are choosing between food and fuel, while 14 per cent are using food banks. More than a quarter (28 per cent) are also planning to leave the industry in search of better pay.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, has said that he was “saddened” by the news that RCN members had voted for industrial action and that nurses going on strike was in “nobody’s best interest”. He said that the government had accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full, through the £1,400 pay rise that was offered in July and the 3 per cent increase last year, “when public sector pay was frozen” elsewhere.
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, has been criticised for saying on Sky News that some nurses would have had to use food banks only because they were in an emergency, such as the breakdown of a “relationship or boiler”. Rachel Harrison, national secretary of the GMB union, said Keegan’s comments showed a “staggering lack of empathy”.
In the Autumn Statement on 17 November Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, announced funding and policies intended to address NHS staff shortages and pressures. This includes a workforce plan, which will be jointly published by the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and will examine the number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals needed over the next five, ten and 15 years. The NHS budget will increase by £3.3 billion a year over the next two years.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that the RCN’s pay demands are “not affordable”. This sentiment was mirrored by the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting this week, when he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he could not “in all honesty” meet nurses’ pay demands if he was Health Secretary.
The RCN has said that patient safety is “paramount” and that minimum staffing levels will be retained during strikes, by following the “life-preserving care model”. This states that certain areas of care are exempt from staff strikes to prevent causing death or permanent disability. These include emergency services, urgent therapeutic services and urgent diagnostics and assessments.
However, there will be disruptions to NHS care elsewhere. Non-urgent operations and outpatient appointments are expected to be postponed, alongside sessions of chemotherapy and kidney dialysis. It is expected that hospital care will be similar to that offered at the weekend or on a bank holiday.
The RCN has a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, and will update its website with news of the dates of strike action. Other healthcare staff, including ambulance workers, are also being balloted for strike action. You can follow GMB’s updates here.
This article is being kept updated with the latest information.
[See also: What does the NHS winter crisis mean for patients?]