meIndustrial action can have many causes, but there are two responses available to governments: negotiation or confrontation. Which path the ministers take depends on a reckoning on public opinion. Sympathy for the strikers will encourage commitment; the suspicion that their demands are excessive allows intransigence.
Frontline health workers are generally held in high esteem, and the Covid pandemic reinforced national affection for the NHS. That sentiment will extend to support for nurses on strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but compassion will compete with anxiety about patient care. Mindful of that balance, the government has taken a stance of calibrated intransigence, indicating that it is willing to talk, but not on the main issue: to pay.
The government’s offer, a flat fee increase of £1,400 for most healthcare workers, equates to a real cut in conditions, given double-digit inflation. The Royal College of Nursing says its members have suffered a 20% drop in income since 2010. The union is asking for a 5% pay increase on top of inflation.
The Department of Health and Social Care says that public sector wage constraints are unavoidable in times of difficult national finances, and that the health service has been treated relatively generously. Those arguments would carry more weight if the Treasury restrictions were not the result of the government’s own colossal mismanagement of the economy, and if the public sector were not yet reeling from the latest dose of conservative austerity.
There is little flexibility in budgets because Liz Truss’s wild fiscal experiments have ruined Britain’s credibility in the financial markets. And there is less ability to get by with less in the National Health Service because your staff have endured the stress and falling standard of living for years.
Those grievances were set aside during the pandemic, a commitment recognized in the ritual applause at the nation’s gates. But applause doesn’t pay bills, as the nurses’ banners say. Critics of the strike might try to paint the industrial action as an abdication of the duty of care, but the biggest security threat is corroding working conditions and staff shortages. Patients suffer more when nurses are forced to leave the profession and neither can be recruited.
The same applies to ambulance drivers, who they have also voted in favor of the strike. They are workers with vocation. They know better than their critics what is at stake when they withdraw their work. That they feel compelled to do so is a measure of desperation. that expresses fear of hardship and also anger over the state of a health service where government reliance on the willingness of underpaid staff to go the extra mile has turned into cynical exploitation.
Whether the public sees it that way is hard to predict, especially as the mood around the strikes and the government’s reaction will be determined by disputes in other sectors. A winter of discontent It will test the patience of the people whose services are taken down. It will also aggravate the growing sense of national stagnation under a weak and directionless government.
Either way, the prime minister must not imagine that he can weather the coming storm or deflect blame for disruptions and stoppages. There is room for debate about the methods by which health workers air their grievances, but little doubt about where the responsibility lies for a crisis that has been building over 12 years of Conservative rule.