Ministers must use the momentum to end NHS strikes for good

Editorial: This is the moment for a compromise that could end the misery for workers and patients

Wednesday 03 May 2023 10:11 BST
RCN members could still take strike action, but ministers may feel they have the upper hand
RCN members could still take strike action, but ministers may feel they have the upper hand (EPA)

It is too early to declare that peace has broken out in the health service, but the acceptance of the latest government pay offer by most of the unionised staff represented on the NHS Staff Council is an important step forward. Members of the GMB, Unison and some of the smaller royal colleges of medicine will no longer go on strike and will no longer risk alienating public opinion that remains solidly behind the nurses at the moment but cannot be guaranteed.

When considering the margins by which the two main holdout unions rejected the government offer, the failure to end the disruption and distress to patients is even more frustrating. Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) rejected the deal by 54 per cent to 46 per cent while Unite, which represents some ambulance crews, was 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

Ministers must be tempted to think the momentum is now behind them. Strikes have dragged on for many months. The pay offer is now going to be implemented, giving it the feel of a fait accompli. There isn’t much realistic chance of a radically better offer being extracted from a government that thinks it is winning. The mood is different now that the main forum for talks between the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS trust management and 14 different groups of staff have actually come to a “majority verdict”, albeit not quite a consensus. Health secretary Steve Barclay may judge that a modest “swing” in opinion within RCN and Unite membership would remove the potential for another ballot endorsing strike action. Pat Cullen of the RCN certainly doesn’t sound enthusiastic about another round of strikes, with all it entails. She did, after all, recommend the package to her membership.

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