Government to blame for ‘tragic’ NHS strike, says union boss as nurses start walkout

‘Strong possibility’ of further strikes in January, says RCN chief Pat Cullen

Adam Forrest
Thursday 15 December 2022 08:19 GMT
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Government to blame for ‘tragic’ NHS strike, says nursing union boss

Rishi Sunak’s government is to blame for the “tragic” strike hitting the NHS on Thursday, said the nursing union leader as tens of thousands of nurses walk out for the first time across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief executive Pat Cullen said health secretary Steve Barclay and ministers were responsible for the cancellation of thousands of NHS operations because of their refusal to negotiate on pay.

“This is a tragic day for nurses, a tragic day for patients,” she told BBC Breakfast. “And it’s tragic that this government has decided not to speak to us, talk to us, get into a room on the first day of strikes – that’s why we’re here today.”

The RCN chief suggested she was willing to compromise on pay rise demands of around 19 per cent – RPI inflation plus 5 per cent – if Mr Barclay would only “get in a room” and discuss pay.

The union leader said Mr Barclay had told her he could talk about “anything but pay – that’s going to resolve nothing. What it is going to do is to continue with days like this.”

Ms Cullen warned there was a “strong possibility” of further nurses’ strikes in January unless the government changes its hardline stance. “We’ll be reasonable with you if you are reasonable with us,” she said.

Health minister Maria Caulfield cited the disastrous Liz Truss mini-budget as evidence for why borrowing cannot be used for spending to pay for a bigger pay rise for nurses.

“We know the impact of borrowing when governments can’t afford it, we saw that just a few weeks ago,” said the minister – arguing that the RCN demands were unaffordable.

Ms Caulfield also claimed that pay was “almost a smaller issue” than other issues for nurses – citing long working hours and not finishing on time. “Pay is an issue but it’s almost a smaller issue compared to some of those others,” she told Times Radio.

But pressure is mounting on the government find a compromise on pay, with ex-Tory chairman Sir Jake Berry saying it “is going to have to improve its offer”.

“We need to find a way as a government, and the union does too, to get to that centre point, that point of agreement straight away,” the senior Tory MP told Talk TV.

Around 70,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries will be lost in England due to the nursing strike, according to the government, with nurses also set to walk out on 20 December.

Picket lines are being set up at dozens of hospitals on Thursday morning in a dispute over pay, as the health service is forced to run a bank holiday-style service in many areas.

An Ipsos poll shows that 52 per cent of voters support the nurse strikes, with only 27 per cent against. Drivers could be heard beeping in support for nurses at picket lines.

Nurses on the picket lines said low salaries mean some colleagues have had to turn to food banks to feed their children, while have said staff shortages mean patients are being neglected.

Liverpool staff nurse Kelly Hopkins, 46, said: “I have connections with the food bank and there are more and more nurses using the food bank, which is just not acceptable … it’s just crazy.”

RCN members on the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London
RCN members on the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London (PA)

The RCN said it will still staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care. When it comes to adult A&E and urgent care, nurses will work Christmas Day-style rotas.

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts were “pulling out all the stops” to lessen the impact on patients. She said they would “do everything they can to ensure that essential services are properly staffed”.

Ministers conintue to insist on sticking to the recommendations of the independent pay review body, which said in February that nurses should get an average pay rise of around £1,400, between 4 to 5 per cent.

Mr Barclay said today’s strike was “deeply regrettable”. The health secretary said paying nurses more “would mean taking money away from frontline services at a time when we are tackling record waiting lists as a result of the pandemic”.

But the former head of the NHS pay review body has said ministers should ask the body to reconsider the 4 to 5 per cent pay rise recommended in February before inflation soared.

Jerry Cope told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “the world was a rather different place in February” – saying another review “may be a possibility for a solution for this apparently intractable problem”.

The head of NHS Employers has said “real concerns” remain about the level of cover nurses will provide for cancer patients during the strike.

Danny Mortimer said some aspects of talks with the RCN had been disappointing and warned that “unless the government indicates a willingness to negotiate on pay-related matters, further strike dates will be announced by the RCN for January 2023 and beyond”.

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