Nurses across large parts of the UK launched a historic strike on Thursday as they walked out of hospitals and went on pickets after several years of falling pay and falling standards left the country’s nationalized health system in a state of crisis.
As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the UK’s largest nurses union, are taking industrial action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the latest and unprecedented wave of strikes to engulf Great Britain Brittany this winter . It is the largest strike in the RCN’s 106-year history.
But it comes after several years of struggling for workers at Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), a revered but beleaguered institution that is struggling due to understaffing, skyrocketing demand and limited funding.
“I came into nursing to care for patients and over the years my ability to provide the level of care my patients deserve has been compromised,” said Andrea Mackay, who worked as a nurse for seven years in a hospital in southwest England. CNN on her reasons for going on strike Thursday.
“The reality is that nurses across the UK are entering understaffed hospitals every day,” said Mackay. “The NHS has been running for years on the compassion and goodwill of nurses… It’s unsustainable.”
“It’s about paying staff what they’re worth so they can pay their bills,” Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse preparing to join the strike, told CNN, adding that pressure on staff has crippled the emergency department in which he works regularly. of my worst shifts I have been the only nurse to 28 sick children…it is not safe and we cannot provide the care these children need sometimes,” she said.
Pamela Jones, on picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, told PA Media: ‘I’m going on strike today as I’ve been a nurse for 32 years; in those 32 years the changes have been astronomical.
“I am very sorry for the girls who are now trying to enter the profession, they have to pay for their training. The public must understand the pressures everyone is under. You just walk into the ER and see the queues, there are no beds.
“We want to save our NHS, we don’t want it to go, and I think this is the way to go, it’s the only way we can express our views. We don’t want to be here. I was really conflicted about going on strike because it’s not something I ever, ever thought I’d have to do in my life, yet the government pushed us to do it.”
He added: “I hope the government listens, because none of us want to be here, we just want a fair pay rise.”
The strike will take place over two days, next Thursday and Tuesday, and not all NHS Trusts will take part. But it marks one of the most dramatic uses of industrial action in the NHS’s 74-year history and has intensified debate about the state of Britain’s public services.
The RCN is calling for a 5% pay rise over retail inflation, which on current figures equates to a 19% rise, and for the government to fill a record number of vacancies which it claims are jeopardizing safety of patients. UK health secretary Steve Barclay told CNN earlier this week that their application is “not accessible”.
The deadlock follows years of disputes over pay levels for NHS employees. Nurses’ pay fell 1.2% each year between 2010 and 2017 when inflation is taken into account, according to the Health Foundation, a British charity that campaigns for better health and healthcare. For the first three of those years, their pay was frozen.
The number of patients waiting for treatment has meanwhile skyrocketed, a years-long trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A record 7.2 million people in England – more than one in eight residents – are currently waiting for treatment, according to the British Medical Association. Seven years ago, the figure was 3.3 million.
“I work alongside some amazing (nurses) who have come in early, left late, worked through breaks and lunch, agreed to come on their days off for an overtime shift to make sure their patients are kept as safe as we can, Mackay told CNN.
“I don’t have all the answers and I understand that there is a limit to the money available, but unless the government prioritizes health, patient safety (and) workforce strengthening, the NHS will collapse,” he said. said.
The NHS, which is free at the point of care, forms a central part of the British national psyche and the country’s third rail of politics. During the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of Britons stood outside their homes to cheer on NHS workers, in a government-backed weekly ritual.
But this has since been criticized as an empty gesture by disgruntled employees, who say the government’s salary offers to staff have not represented the same spirit.
Earlier this year, the RCN rejected a government offer to raise nurses’ pay by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year, an average increase of 4.3%, well below the inflation rate.
“I have treated patients who can remember life before the NHS. They know how valuable it is because they’ve seen what’s come before,” Mackay said.
Labor leader Keir Starmer slammed Rishi Sunak into the strike on Wednesday during prime minister’s questions, telling him “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he stopped the strike by reaching an agreement with the RCN.
The industrial action was “a shame on this government,” Starmer said.
Most of the nurses who will take part in Thursday’s action are going on strike for the first time in their lives. But they are joining with British utility workers in quitting their jobs and demanding increased pay and conditions, prompting a growing wave of strikes the likes of which the UK has not seen in decades.
Employees across Britain’s railways, buses, motorways and borders are taking industrial action this month, essentially bringing various forms of travel to a halt. Teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers and paramedics are also expected to go on strike in December.
He left the government rushing to respond. Members of the British military were being trained to drive ambulances and fight fire in the event of a strike, ministers said earlier this month. The Police Federation said on Tuesday that it opposes calls for police officers to drive ambulances.
And unions have threatened further action in the new year, when the cost-of-living crisis that has darkened Britain in recent months is expected to get even worse.
A total of 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the most recent month for which data are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is the highest number for any month since 2011.
The impact of those strikes has led parts of the British media to rekindle memories of the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978 and 1979, when demonstrations shut down the UK, although this year’s level of industrial action makes up a fraction of those months , in which several million working days were lost.
Sunak has been accused by opposition parties of refusing to negotiate with unions in good faith and of not doing enough to stop the strikes from going ahead.
But the ongoing disputes are a thorny issue for both major parties. Labor – a party with strong historical ties to trade unions – walked a tightrope, urging the government to do more but refusing to explicitly back protesters’ demands.