Nurses will stage a historic walkout on Thursday as Britain’s wave of pay strikes intensifies, after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed the industrial action was a “badge of shame” for Rishi Sunak’s government.
Talks between NHS leaders and the Royal College of Nursing went to the wire over which services will be protected in England, Wales and Northern Ireland during the first strike in the trade union’s history.
The RCN-led industrial action is part of a wave of strikes sweeping across the UK that could rival the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said nurses were “not relishing” strike action but “acting with a very heavy heart” amid the union’s demand for a 19 per cent pay rise.
“It is a tragic first for nursing, the RCN and the NHS,” she added. “Nursing staff on picket lines is a sign of failure on the part of governments.”
The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that he was determined to keep pay under control to help hold down inflation. He said nurses had been given a 3 per cent pay rise last year while other public sector workers had their remuneration frozen.
But Starmer urged Sunak to “open the door and discuss pay” with the RCN, saying: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he is playing games with people’s health and there is a human cost.”
Sunak said the Labour leader should tell the party’s union backers to call off strikes that are causing havoc across the UK economy.
“We are actually protecting the public, they are protecting their paymasters,” said the prime minister. “For working people in this country it is Labour’s nightmare before Christmas.”
The RCN has agreed several vital services, including chemotherapy, emergency cancer care and dialysis, will be exempt from strike action under so-called “derogations”.
However, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said in a letter to NHS leaders in England on Wednesday: “There are areas where we are disappointed that we have not been able to make more progress with the RCN.”
Mortimer wrote that “the limited national derogations for cancer services” were “a particular area of worry”.
Mortimer said “further strike dates will be announced by the RCN for January 2023 and beyond” unless the government “indicates a willingness to negotiate on pay-related matters”.
It was likely that these strikes “will be for a longer time period on each occasion and will cover a greater number of organisations in England”, he added.
The initial strike will affect about 65 NHS trusts in England and Wales and a further 11 in Northern Ireland. As many as 100,000 nurses will walk out.
Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, said it was “deeply regrettable some union members are going ahead with strike action”, adding he was “concerned about the risk that strikes pose to patients”.
Cullen accused Barclay on Monday of “[closing] the books” by refusing to discuss the union’s pay demand.
Barclay has declined to discuss the pay claim on the grounds that the government has accepted the recommendation of an independent review body and does not have a role to play.
Nurses in Scotland have pulled back from strikes while they consider an offer from the Scottish government giving an average 7.5 per cent increase.
Charlotte McArdle, NHS deputy chief nursing officer, said while the RCN-led strikes would cause inevitable disruption to services, “local NHS teams have worked hard to maintain as many appointments as possible, so it is important people attend appointments as planned unless they have been contacted for it to be rearranged”.
The RCN said it was the responsibility of each NHS employer to ensure services were safe. If employers were not able to maintain services, they could request additional derogations, it added.
Should a major incident be declared in an NHS trust area during the strikes, nurses would leave picket lines to help, said the RCN.
Alongside nurses, Royal Mail workers will stage a second day of strikes on Thursday.
Meanwhile, transport minister Huw Merriman is preparing to hold fresh talks with industry executives and union leaders after strikes brought large parts of the railway network to a halt for a second consecutive day on Wednesday.
Merriman will meet the RMT union, train operating companies and infrastructure owner Network Rail on Thursday.
About 40,000 RMT members continued a 48-hour strike on Wednesday, with more walkouts scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Thursday and Sunday will also have fewer morning services than normal as the network recovers from industrial action.