Ex-Tory health minister warns NHS strikes will cause deaths in attack on nurses’ chief

Lord Bethell refutes nursing union secretary Pat Cullen’s comments around patient safety during walkouts

William Mata
Friday 17 February 2023 11:40 GMT
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Union chief accuses government of 'punishing' nurses as NHS staff stage biggest-ever strike

Nursing strikes will lead to increased deaths and delayed diagnosis, a former Tory health minister has warned in a scathing attack on unions.

Lord Bethell, who served under Boris Johnson, accused Royal College of Nursing chief Pat Cullen of failing to address questions about the “significant risk” walkouts posed to patients when staffing is reduced.

On Thursday, the union announced thousands of members would strike at more than 120 NHS sites in England in a significant escalation of its row over pay and staffing.

The next strike will run continuously for 48 hours from 6am on March 1 and is a step up from the previous action which took place only during the day shift for 12 hours each time. It will also cover A&E and cancer services.

Lord Bethell told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I need to call out Pat Cullen. She refused to answer the question about significant risk. Of course, there is going to be danger to patients. Of course, they are going to add significant risk.

“We are going to see an excess of mortality and undiagnosed disease… It is going to hit the NHS really hard…. We are going to see a long tale of undiagnosed disease and complications. Pat Cullen needs to face up to that responsibility.

Earlier on the programme, RCN union general secretary Ms Cullen was asked on the programme if she accepted there would be a significant risk to patients, and she said: “What I accept is that there will be significant changes in the 48 hours. And of course, there will continue to be extreme challenges.”

Pressed again on the impact, she said: “What our patients are facing every day, in a depleted health service, a health service in crisis, poses significant risk and significant challenge.”

Former health minister Lord Bethell (AFP via Getty Images)

East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust chief executive Nick Hulme also told the programme that the planned strikes “will be very different and it’s clearly a much higher risk” than previous strikes, adding there was “significant risk”.

The NHS Confederation has written to Rishi Sunak to tell the prime minister that more than 140,000 appointments in England have been postponed because of walkouts so far.

In addition, ministers have been warned that their pledge to cut NHS waiting lists will not be met if they fail to reach an agreement with nurses.

Lord Bethell added that NHS pay disputes needed to be sorted “quickly,” calling for both sides to engage in talks.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen (PA Wire)

“This does need to be sorted quickly,” he said. “It’s having a huge impact on the NHS service and on the country as a whole, and I am worried … that the two sides have got themselves in a bit of a cul-de-sac.”

“I would like to see Steve Barclay stepping forwards, not just on pay rises, but also on the circumstances and the nature of the work that our health professionals are in at the moment.”

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and other care services, said news of a fresh 48-hour walkout by Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members was “very worrying in terms of the potential impact”.

He told Kay Burley on Sky News: “Yeah, it really is serious. Very, very worrying, obviously in terms of the potential impact.

“The scale of this is more extensive with 93 trusts involved, the duration, 48 hours including overnight … it’s all about not just major trauma but of course very important operations, cardiac care, neuro-surgery, cancer surgery and of course emergency departments and cancer care as well.”

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