NHS Strikes: UK’s Well-Being This Winter Hinges on Nursing Union Deals

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Winter is coming - and, as NHS Provider’s interim CEO Saffron Cordery states, the last thing patients and services need is prolonged strike action. 


Nursing, physician and support staff unions have carried out strikes across England regarding pay rises; or, the lack of them. Large unions are planning to stage strikes across the UK this winter unless ministers give NHS staff a pay rise at least equalling inflation, which is currently at 10.1%. 


Their grievances were heard by the country’s Met ministers at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), after representatives pushed forward a vote to strike. Several members of the union balloted in favour of the nurses, who have been given the green light to go on strike at most hospitals and other places of care, from before Christmas. Health Secretary Steve Barclay spoke with RCN leaders and NHS union representatives of the other major NHS unions, including Unison, GMB and Unite, which are all balloting over industrial action. They represent the hundreds of thousands of health workers who strive to protect the public during the pandemic, and in the months following. 


Barclay intended for talks to avert the wave of strikes set to hit the NHS in the coming weeks. In an attempt to placate the unions, he offered 1 million NHS staff at least £1,400 a head for 2022-23, which equates to a rise of 4% to 5%. The results of Tuesday’s meeting are unlikely to pave the way to a sufficient deal, given the gulf between the government and unions over how big an uplift NHS staff deserve. 


Ahead of the meeting with Barclay, GMB national secretary Rachel Harrison, said: “The secretary of state has to make this more than a box-ticking exercise if he wants to avoid an unprecedented winter of NHS strikes.


“The reality is the NHS is propped up by the devotion of overworked health staff who effectively subsidise the Government to the tune of billions of pounds of free labour. And what’s their reward? More than a decade of real-terms pay cuts.”

“The failure to pay staff properly means that the NHS cannot recruit and retain the staff it needs, putting the safety of patients at risk every day. Without urgent action, the very future of our health service is on the line.”


Strikes and Implications on Wider NHS

Leading health figures are anxious to stem any industrial action due to fears that waiting lists and planned treatments will be stalled further. Despite recovery efforts, the NHS still faces record-high waiting times, with more than seven million people in England waiting for treatment. The votes could lead to paramedics, health care assistants, porters and cleaners joining nurses taking part in strike action. Although emergency care will resume during the RCN strike, elective care will be affected should strike action persist. 


It is no secret that nurses, among many healthcare frontline workers, have faced years of being overworked and under-compensated. In addition to long hours and fewer resources, nurses face a plethora of challenges as part of the pandemic fallout. Deep cuts in social care and mental health alongside a growing ageing population with more complex medical needs, mean that nurses and assistants are not always able to carry out the necessary level of care, which has left many feeling exhausted and demoralised.  


In addition, the increased workload caused by staff shortages and lack of community healthcare services makes it increasingly difficult for nurses to carry out the necessary level of care. Saffron Cordery said:

"We understand the frustration felt by nurses following years of below-inflation pay settlements, the rising cost of living, and working through a pandemic, and we strongly urge both sides in these talks to find a deal that recognises their hard work and skills.

"The last thing the health service needs right now is prolonged industrial action. It's good to see dialogue taking place."