A wave of industrial action among health workers fighting for cost-of-living pay increases is set to escalate in the new year as Unison, the biggest ambulance workers’ union, announced two new strike dates in January. The Royal College of Nursing was also poised to announce further stoppages.
The announcement by Unison, the biggest ambulance workers’ union, followed a day of action on Wednesday also involving the GMB and Unite unions which led to delays in answering some 999 calls.
Data from NHS England provided an early snapshot of its impact and revealed that 2,774 ambulance workers had been absent on strike. The action led to the cancellation of at least 559 operations and 4,292 outpatient appointments, although both sets of data were incomplete.
Unison said the new strikes, on January 11 and 23, would each last 24 hours — double the length of the action taken this week — and would involve all ambulance employees, not just the 999 response crews who turned out on Wednesday, as it ratcheted up its fight with the government. However it added that many of the services’ employees were likely to be exempted from the action under emergency cover plans.
The union’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, said: “It’s only through talks that this dispute will end. No health workers want to go out on strike again in the new year.”
The RCN made clear that it would announce new strikes if the prime minister did not respond to an ultimatum issued by its general secretary, Pat Cullen, on Tuesday. Following the second of two 12-hour walkouts this month, Cullen told Rishi Sunak that there were “two days for us to meet and begin to turn this around” or the RCN would by Friday announce dates and locations for further strikes.
Sunak has pledged to introduce “new tough laws” to enforce minimum service levels during industrial action, and officials in the department of health have been asked to explore a range of options in this area in light of this week’s strike.
NHS leaders are concerned that a second round of strikes will prove more extensive and damaging than the stoppages in December.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, warned in a letter to health service managers this month that further nurses’ strikes expected in the new year were likely to be “for a longer time period on each occasion and will cover a greater number of organisations in England”.
He added that it was also likely that agreements on so-called derogations — areas protected from strike action — would be “altered and reduced further”.
Allies of health secretary Steve Barclay confirmed that the government’s position had not shifted after Wednesday’s ambulance worker walkouts, with ministers refusing to negotiate over this year’s pay recommendations.
“We have an independent pay review body — which the unions campaigned to set up — and we will continue to defer to that process to ensure decisions balance the needs of staff and the wider economy,” Barclay said on Twitter.
In a sign of an olive branch from the government, officials close to Barclay on Thursday signalled that the minister was keen to ensure that the process for next year’s pay review, which has already begun, was not unnecessarily prolonged.
The NHS independent pay review body submitted its recommendations in June this year, and they were accepted by the government in July. More than 1mn NHS staff received a pay rise of £1,400 which was backdated to April 2022.
However, unions said that the pay review body would not resolve the stand-off. Laurence Turner, GMB head of research and policy, noted that the health department had already given its remit to the body for next year and budgeted for a 2.1 per cent pay increase.
“This is about a third of forecast inflation in 2023. Speeding up the process won’t change the fundamental issue in the dispute, which is that pay NHS settlements have repeatedly been too low,” he said.
The continuing tensions came amid fresh evidence of the perilous state of the NHS. New data released on Thursday showed that one in four ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over after arriving at a hospital last week due to increased demand and a shortage of beds.
The health service is also under pressure from a jump in flu cases with the number of patients hospitalised by the illness up two-thirds in a week.