NHS A&E and cancer nurses set to join ‘most disruptive’ strikes yet

Royal College of Nursing planning to announce first 48-hour strike running through nights

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Sunday 12 February 2023 17:17 GMT
NHS nurses striking is 'a badge of shame' for government, says Keir Starmer

Nurses in England are preparing to escalate their dispute with the government by involving staff from NHS A&E departments, intensive care and cancer wards in a series of 48-hour strikes.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is understood to be planning to announce walk outs for two consecutive days and nights, rather than limiting action from 8am to 8pm as they have done so far.

NHS leaders warned the looming strike could be the “biggest impact” on patients yet seen, with the union preparing to end a process where the RCN had agreed to exemptions with hospitals.

The RCN told NHS leaders on Friday it is preparing to step up its dispute by asking its members working in emergency departments, intensive care units and oncology to join the strike.

But the union, expected to announce the strike this week, will make a very limited set of provisions for the most urgent clinical situations as part of a legal obligation not to endanger life.

An RCN source said: “They were expecting an escalation but had not prepared for the removal of the committees and derogation process that too many had manipulated at local level and applied pressure on nurses to break the strike.”

The added: “NHS leaders are fearing this escalation, and they must bring pressure to bear on government to get it stopped.”

NHS Providers, the body representing NHS hospital services, said the prospect was “alarming” – pointing out that walkouts have led to 137,000 appointments being postponed so far, with nearly 50,000 of those being from Monday and Tuesday last week alone.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers said: “A continuous 48-hour strike that includes staff from emergency departments, intensive care units and cancer care services would likely have the biggest impact on patients we’ve seen.”

Urging Rishi Sunak’s ministers to engage in pay compromise talks, she added: “The only way to avert more disruption is to bring the strikes to an end, which means the government must talk to the unions, now, about pay for this financial year.”

Dates for the next strike by nurses in England are expected to be announced within days, and the escalated action expected to take place within a couple of weeks.

Nurses from the RCN took part in two days of strike action last week in England but a walkout in Wales was cancelled following an improved pay offer from the Labour government in Cardiff.

RCN chief executive Pat Cullen (second right front row) joins members (PA Wire)

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen has made clear that strikes will be called off if Mr Sunak’s ministers are prepared to talk about a 7 per cent pay rise offer of the kind offered by the Welsh government.

Union leaders have implored health secretary Steve Barclay to act to prevent further strike action in England – but Mr Sunak’s government has indicated it will not budge on one of the main points of contention – 4 per cent pay for 2022/23.

Ministers have said they want to “look forward” to the pay award for next year, but unions have said that current pay rates need to be addressed given the spike in the cost of living as a result of soaring inflation.

Mr Barclay is believed to have presented the idea of a one-off payment, but the Treasury and No 10 have made clear the government would not sanction extra money ahead of next year’s pay review.

Ms Cullen wrote to Mr Sunak with a direct appeal for talks but a week later the PM has not replied and there has been no contact with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said Mr Barclay “continues to urge unions to call off strikes and engage in a constructive dialogue about the pay review body process for the coming year.

The added: “Our priority is keeping patients safe. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said patients were “paying the price for Steve Barclay and Rishi Sunak’s strikes” and did not need any further disruption.

“This chaos has gone on long enough. Ministers need to get around the table and agree an end to these strikes,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats’ Cabinet Office spokesperson Christine Jardine added: “Steve Barclay has got to get a grip of this. Ministers need to drop their macho stance and get around the table when disputes flare up – there is no time to waste.”

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