Union leaders threatened on Saturday night to order a new wave of tougher strikes in the new year in which nurses would offer “less generous” support inside hospitals, in a dramatic escalation of their pay dispute with the government. .
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), in a marked hardening of its line, said there will be “more hospitals and more nurses participating than now” in the January strikes, unless the ministers back down on Thursday.
The RCN said it would reveal its timetable for larger and broader disputes if ministers fail to open new wage talks within 48 hours of a meeting. second day of action scheduled for this Tuesday.
In a new round of disputes, it would work to ensure that nurses restricted the type of work they were prepared to do on strike days to a shorter list of activities in fewer areas than had been the case on the first day of strike last Thursday.
Some nurses claimed that they were harassed and threatened with disciplinary action if they tried to limit their duties on the day of the strike.
The RCN move came amid early signs that ministers may be examining ways to break the stalemate behind the scenes, to prevent the collapse of the National Health Service during Christmas and New Year.
The Observer you have been told that there have been meetings between senior officials of the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in recent days to discuss the dispute and possible ways to end it. Treasury sources said ministers would refuse to go beyond the wage review body’s recommendations, but could look for ways to give more money to staff through one-time lump-sum payments.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said: “The government should get this over with by Christmas. The January strikes, if forced to continue, will involve more hospitals and more nurses than today – 2023 must be a new beginning for all, not more of the same.”
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows that support for nurses’ action has grown, with 60% of respondents saying they support strikes. This is a increase of 3 percentage points a fortnight ago.
With hospital admissions for flu rising sharply, the NHS this week faces the most widespread disruption in decades with strikes by nurses and ambulance workers on consecutive days.
The second RCN strike on Tuesday will affect more than 70 health trusts and organizations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ambulance workers’ strikes on Wednesday will affect 10 of 11 trusts in England and Wales. East of England is the only ambulance service that will not be affected. Members of the GMB, Unison and Unite unions are taking action.
Ambulance services in the north east and north west of England are likely to be among the hardest hit, with members of all three unions on strike. The most widespread action is that of the GMB, with the participation of more than 10,000 ambulance workers in nine ambulance trusts.
Striking ambulance crews will respond to all “life-threatening” emergencies, but less critical calls will be dealt with by a combination of military drivers, St John Ambulance, taxis and community care teams. NHS England has advised hospitals to try to free up beds before action.
Rachel Harrison, the GMB’s national secretary for public services, said striking ambulance workers would come off picket lines to respond to the most serious cases. She said: “I think it’s safe to assume that everywhere there will be coverage for category one cases…the way it’s worked in the past is we’ll have picket lines outside the ambulance stations where the members will be and there’ll be a dedicated team . there to answer when calls come in.”
Jason Kirkham, a Unite member and paramedic in the West Midlands, said: “We don’t want to cause any harm to patients. Our goal is to disrupt the government to come and talk to us. We want them to engage with us in a meaningful way, so that we can suspend this action and come to some agreement.
“All NHS workers are working as hard as they can to protect patients, but we know the service is struggling. Morale is the lowest I’ve seen in 20 years.”
There will probably be little respite for those traveling abroad over the Christmas holidays. Border Force agents will operate for eight days, between December 23 and New Year’s Eve, at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports. The action will mainly affect those arriving in the UK, rather than those leaving.
The ministers said their main concern for the coming weeks was public safety. Arrangements have been made to deploy 1,200 members of the armed forces to cover duties such as driving ambulances and conducting border checks.
These include 600 drivers and a plus 150 troops providing direct logistical support to members of the armed forces who drive ambulances. Community first responders will also be used to help manage the demand for medical care.
Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “Calling in the military is not going to make this dispute go away. The strikes will continue into next year unless ministers stop hiding behind the pay review body and agree now to improve NHS pay and staffing.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said his main concern was patient safety. He added: “I have listened to the unions and I am open to further discussions, but their [pay] the demands are not affordable in the economic circumstances”.
A DHSC source added: “We are very sorry that the RCN is considering intensifying the strike, which could further put patient safety at risk.”
More Conservative MPs joined calls for the government to engage with NHS workers last night. Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defense select committee, said the pay gap “must be narrowed”, adding that “both sides must come together to try to reach an agreement”. He said the dispute was “damaging the economy and putting additional pressure on everyone, including the military.”
Another senior Conservative MP, Charles Walker, said there was “a deal to be made” with the nurses. “Any organization that has a high level of unfilled jobs would look at the salary it offers,” said Walker, who contrasted NHS workers and railway staff, where he said few people left because of salary or terms.