Around 300,000 nurses are believed to have voted in favor of industrial action in the first of a possible cascade of strikes by NHS staff that could cripple the health service this winter.
The action is expected worsen Covid buildup, with the postponement of non-urgent operations and the extension of waiting times for the admission of patients from the Emergency Department. Fewer nurses in non-emergency rooms will make it harder to discharge patients and free up beds.
The results of the first UK-wide vote by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in its 106-year history are expected on Wednesday, with the strike due to start next month. An announcement was expected on Monday, but there was a delay in the independent oversight process.
An RCN spokesman said the ministers are “in denial” of both the anger of the nursing staff and the public support they have. And although the government says it has contingency plans, it acknowledges that the strikes will have an impact on services.
Young doctors, midwives and paramedics are preparing to strike this winter. Physiotherapists, meanwhile, will start voting on strike action over pay on Monday, raising the threat of widespread industrial action in the NHS before the end of the year.
Health workers from other unions, including ambulance staff, janitors and hospital cleaners, are also voting for industrial action. Unison and GMB are set to announce the results of the vote later this month.
Earlier this year, the government gave most NHS workers in England a pay rise of £1,400, well below what the unions were asking for. In Scotland, staff of NHS workers have been offered a record pay rise of £2,205, an average pay rise of 7 per cent.
Why is the Royal College of Nursing recommending the strike?
The RCN says that years of pay cuts in real terms are driving people out of the nursing profession and putting patient safety at risk. The College expects to see a wage award that rises to 5 per cent above retail inflation, which is currently just above 12 per cent.
What has the government offered?
Earlier this year, it gave most NHS workers in England a pay rise of £1,400, resulting in a 4-5 per cent pay rise, with staff in Wales and Northern Ireland receiving what same. The Scottish Government has offered staff a record pay rise of £2,205, an average pay rise of 7 per cent.
Can nurses in the UK go on strike?
Yes. They have legal protection against unfair dismissal if they participate in an official and legal strike. Any industrial action would mirror what happened in Northern Ireland in 2019 when nurses went on strike to address unsafe staffing levels and achieve pay parity.
Will emergency care be affected?
The College says it will maintain safe levels of staffing, likely through three models used in Northern Ireland in 2019 depending on service and need: Full Waiver, with a full service exempt, for example intensive care units; a Sunday service or a service on Christmas Day; and a night service model, in which night service numbers were agreed to cover daytime services. Requests for additional staff were considered on a case-by-case basis.
Will my operation be postponed?
Quite possibly, depending on how long the strikes continue. Longer understaffing of hospitals will result in delays in planned treatment or for people waiting to be admitted, as it will inevitably take longer for patients to be discharged.
The RCN said that while the Scottish government’s latest offer is an upgrade for the lowest paid, it is a further pay cut for registered nurses and “fails to recognize their clinical skills and critical role in safety”.
He is campaigning for a 5 per cent pay rise above the RPI rate of inflation, which is currently above 12 per cent, but no UK nation has come close to that.
The industrial action would mirror what happened in Northern Ireland in 2019, when RCN members came out demanding urgent action to tackle insecure staffing levels and achieve pay parity. Nurses involved in emergency care without which life would be endangered or permanently disabled will be exempt from participation.
RCN CEO and Secretary General Pat Cullen called the vote a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to improve wages and combat staff shortages that she says put patients at risk.
“Governments have repeatedly neglected the NHS and the value of nursing. We can change this if together we say ‘enough is enough,’” she told the members.
Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden said that in the event of industrial action, the NHS would prioritize the most essential services, although he acknowledged it would have an impact on other activities.
“We have well-oiled contingencies and the Department of Health knows how we would deal with a scenario like this should it arise,” he said.
“We will make sure to prioritize the most essential services: emergency services, etc. But of course there would be an impact as a result of a strike like that. I would continue to urge nurses and others to resist striking, even if they have voted in favor. We have already agreed on quite a considerable amount of support for nurses.
“Of course, if you’re in a situation where there’s a lot of nurses on strike, of course it’s going to have an impact, for example, on some elective surgeries and other activities.”
An RCN spokesperson said: “Cutting nurses’ salaries by 20 per cent since 2010 is the opposite of providing ‘substantial support’ to nurses and the Cabinet Minister should not insult our members by pretending that it is. The minister appears denying both the anger of the nursing staff and the public support we have”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We value the hard work of NHS staff, including nurses, and are working hard to support them, including giving more than a million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £ 1400 this year as recommended. by the independent NHS pay review body, on top of 3 per cent last year when wages were frozen in the general public sector.
“Industrial action is a union matter, and we urge them to carefully consider potential impacts on patients.”