- First strike in the 106-year history of the nursing union
- Strikes underway on Thursday and 20 December
- Nurses want a 5% pay rise plus inflation
- The government says the 4-5% offer was set by an independent body
- The union says more strikes are possible if the government does not discuss pay
LONDON/BELFAST, Dec 15 (Reuters) – NHS nurses in Britain staged a strike on Thursday, their first-ever nationwide strike, as a bitter dispute with the government over pay adds pressure on hospitals already at limit in one of the busiest times of the year.
An estimated 100,000 nurses are going on strike in 76 hospitals and health centres, canceling around 70,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries in the UK state-funded NHS.
Britain is facing a wave of union action this winter, with strikes crippling the rail network and postal service and airports bracing for a disruption over the Christmas period.
Inflation exceeding 10%, followed by wage offers of around 4%, is fueling tensions between unions and employers.
Of all the strikes though, it will be the sight of nurses on the pickets that will be the most prominent image for many Britons this winter.
“What a tragic day. This is a tragic day for nurses, it’s a tragic day for patients, patients in hospitals like this, and it’s a tragic day for the people of this society and for our NHS,” Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, he told the BBC during a picket.
Widely admired nursing shut down parts of the NHS, which since its foundation in 1948 has developed national treasure status to be free to the point of use, hitting healthcare when it’s already strained in winter and with backlogs at record highs due to COVID Delays.
Health Minister Steve Barclay said it was deeply regrettable that the strike was going ahead.
“I have worked across government and with doctors outside the public sector to ensure safe staffing levels, but I remain concerned about the risk strikes pose to patients,” he said.
MORE SHOTS FORWARD?
The nurses’ union action on 15 and 20 December is unprecedented in the 106-year history of the UK nurses union, but the RCN says it has no choice as workers struggle to make ends meet.
Nurses want a 5% pay rise plus inflation, arguing they’ve suffered a decade of cuts in real terms and that low pay means understaffing and unsafe patient care. The government says their demand would be equivalent to a 19% increase.
The government declined to discuss pay, which Cullen said raised the prospect of more strikes in the next year.
“Every room I go into with the secretary of state, he tells me he can talk about anything but pay,” she said. “What he’s going to do is continue with days like this.”
Barclay told reporters: “I think it’s important to have a constructive engagement, but it has to be reasonable.”
Outside St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, Ethnea Vaughan, 50, a practice development nurse said she felt nurses had no choice but to go on strike, blaming a government that had ignored their concerns for years.
“Nothing is changing and I’ve been a nurse for 27 years and all I can see is a steady decline in morale,” she told Reuters.
In Belfast, passing vehicles honked their horns in support of nurses picketing in sub-zero temperatures outside the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“I didn’t take this decision lightly…I decided it was time to say ‘enough,'” said Louise Mitchell, a nurse of 40 years.
“We don’t want patients to suffer anymore. Patient care suffers every day of every week in this country because there are not enough resources in the health service.”
The Scottish Government averted a nurses’ strike by holding pay talks, an outcome the RCN had hoped for in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But the government said it could not afford to pay more than the 4-5 per cent offered to nurses, recommended by an independent body, and that further pay increases would mean taking money away from frontline services.
Some treatment areas have been exempt from the strike, the RCN said, including chemotherapy, dialysis and intensive care.
Polls prior to the nurses’ strike suggested that a majority of Britons supported the action.
Written by Sarah Young, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Alex Richardson
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