Nurses across the NHS will strike in the run-up to Christmas, threatening further disruption to healthcare in much of Britain at the busiest time of the year for hospitals that are already struggling to bring down record waiting lists.
The Royal College of Nursing announced on Friday that some of its members would walk out on December 15 and 20 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary, said ministers had refused to open formal talks over pay and patient safety and had effectively “chosen strike action” when they had “the power and the means to stop this”.
The union’s members will be in the vanguard of a wave of industrial action that looks set to spread across the health service and many other parts of the public sector over the winter, despite tentative signs of progress in resolving the long-running dispute in the rail industry.
Hopes of a settlement on the railways rose on Thursday when new transport secretary Mark Harper held talks with Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union. Harper said the meeting had been “constructive”, while Lynch described the talks as “positive”.
After the meeting, Harper said: “There is a deal to be done, and I believe we will get there,” adding that he wanted to “facilitate” an agreement between rail unions and employers — a change of tack from his predecessor, Grant Shapps, who had refused to meet Lynch.
However, Lynch declined to call off strikes the RMT had announced earlier in the week, including a series of 48-hour stoppages in December and January, and an overtime ban for its members at Network Rail and 14 train operators over the festive period.
Meanwhile, widespread walkouts hit the education sector on Thursday. Strikes affected almost every university in England, as a long-running dispute over pay and pensions escalates; and Scottish schools were closed after the country’s education union rejected a last-minute revised pay offer.
The RCN, which has more than 300,000 members, will give details next week of which NHS employers will be affected by the strikes. It won a mandate for action at 176 employers out of 311 where ballots were held.
Its members could soon be joined by those of other unions representing NHS workers. Unison, which represents more than 400,000 health service staff across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, will close its own ballot on Friday and announce results next week.
A GMB ballot of ambulance workers at 11 NHS Trusts will close at the end of the month; Unite is also balloting thousands of health workers; and unions representing junior doctors, midwives and physiotherapists are holding or planning votes.
NHS leaders held a stress-testing exercise earlier this month — codenamed Arctic Willow — to ensure emergency care would continue safely during any strike action, but walkouts would still lead to some scheduled operations and appointments being cancelled.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said health leaders would be reviewing plans and waiting for confirmation of the RCN’s intentions. At minimum, urgent, emergency and critical care would continue on strike days, and the NHS would let patients know in advance of any changes to non-urgent care. Health leaders empathised with their workers, he added, and were keen to see a negotiated resolution of their concerns to avoid a “prolonged war of attrition”.
Steve Barclay, health secretary, said he was “hugely grateful” for nurses’ work but that the RCN’s demand for a pay award of 5 per cent above retail price inflation — equivalent to a 19 per cent rise, compared with a government offer of a 4 to 5 per cent increase for most nurses — was not affordable.
Scotland’s government in contrast raised its pay offer to NHS staff on Thursday, with proposals that would deliver an average uplift of 7.5 per cent, and as much as 11.3 per cent for the lowest paid.
Unison said it was putting the offer to its members in Scotland with a recommendation to accept.
Additional reporting by Bethan Staton and Lukanyo Mnyanda