Cancer care will be disrupted, leaving patients unable to receive some treatments, when the first of a planned series of nurses’ strikes begins next month.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is close to specifying which areas of cancer services will be affected and which will be protected when nurses on strike on December 15 and 20, the first in the union’s 106-year history.
Cancer care involves many types of procedures, including diagnostic tests such as scans and X-rays, chemotherapy or radiation therapy sessions, and emergency surgery to remove tumors.
RCN members have voted in favor of the strike at most hospitals and other NHS care providers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on those days in what union sources say is a show of force to ministers over their demand for a 5% pay increase for above inflation.
High-level sources said the strike was expected to last 12 hours on both days, probably between 8am and 8pm.
The unprecedented work stoppage will seriously disrupt care and is likely to be the first in a series of strikes during the winter and in the spring by NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Friday that “services such as oncology will be repealed or exempted from any strike action”, but added it was too early to specify whether services such as scans and other checks would stop or continue.
asked about colonoscopiesa diagnostic test used to screen for bowel cancer, Cullen said: “All the details are being worked out.”
But in an apparent admission that some cancer care would be suspended on strike days, he added: “Services that are not considered emergency or life-preserving services will not be repealed. Those who fall into those particular descriptions will be repealed.”
The RCN has almost finished drawing up a detailed list of which services in the full range of National Health Service health care will be affected and which will not. He must finalize that list early next week before meetings where he will report to NHS bodies in each of the three countries.
The RCN said it had confirmed the dates after the UK government rejected its offer of formal and detailed negotiations as an alternative to strike action.
“Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such an injustice that they would go on strike for the first time,” Cullen said. “My offer of formal negotiations was rejected and instead the ministers went on strike.
“They have the power and the means to stop this by starting serious talks that address our dispute. Nursing The staff has had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and insecure staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”
The strikes take place after a series of individual votes in NHS trusts and boards, rather than a national vote.
In more than 40% of hospitals, mental health and community services in England, nurses will not have the right to strike because turnout was too low on those ballots. However, action can be taken at all boards of health in Northern Ireland and at all but one in Wales.
Cullen said the UK government had chosen strike action over listening to nursing staff, adding: “If you turn your back on the nurses, you’re turning your back on the patients.”
She said she didn’t recognize Figures advanced by the secretary of health suggesting that the RCN’s wage demands amounted to a 19.2% pay increase costing £10bn a year.
“Yes [the health secretary Steve] Barclay wants to meet me, come around the table and stop the spin and start talking, he can avoid these blows,” he said. “But my door is open day and night. I will be available, as will my team on behalf of our nursing staff.”
The RCN said that despite a pay increase of around £1,400 awarded in the summerexperienced nurses were 20% worse off in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010. He said the economic case for paying nurses fairly was clear when billions of pounds were being spent on agency staff to fill workforce gaps.
He said that in the past year, 25,000 nursing staff across the UK have left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, with low pay contributing to nationwide staff shortages, which he said was affecting patient safety. In England alone there are 47,000 unfilled NHS registered nurse positions.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why the hell is the health secretary refusing to negotiate with the nurses? Patients can no longer be treated on time. The strike is the last thing they need, but the government is allowing this to happen. Patients will never forgive conservators for this negligence.”
Barclay said he was “hugely grateful” for the hard work of the nurses and deeply regretted the strike. However, he refused to open formal talks, calling RCN’s demands “unaffordable.”
“Our priority is to keep patients safe,” he said. “The NHS has tried and tested plans to minimize disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”