Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to go on strike for two days in December due to a continuing row with the government over their pay and conditions.
It comes after the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) held its first-ever strike ballot over the ‘unfair’ terms being offered by the Department for Health and Social Care. The 106-year-old union said it felt compelled to act after the government offered a pay rise of 3% - a figure well short of the current rate of inflation.
The organisation also says it is concerned about the state of the NHS, as experts have warned the health service could be in line for its worst winter ever. Its Scotland members are putting their strike action on ice after the devolved SNP government reopened pay talks.
With nurses’ strike dates confirmed, the prospect of an NHS winter of discontent grows stronger as ambulance crews and junior doctors could be set to walk out over similar issues. Workers in other key sectors, including rail staff, postal workers, teacher and civil servants are all set to launch industrial action.
So, how much do nurses earn - and what are they asking for? Here’s what you need to know.
What has caused the nurses strike?
Nurses are angry at the pay and conditions they are being offered by the NHS - and therefore, the government. Around 45% of public sector workers - including NHS staff - have their pay levels recommended by a pay review body, which ministers can choose to implement or ammend.
It comes after the Covid-19 pandemic left many NHS workers exhausted and demoralised, with the service being hit by high rates of sickness and reports of many staff quitting or retiring early.
Earlier in 2022, most NHS workers were given a flat £1,400 wage increase. The government then offered nurses a 3% pay increase - although this is less than a third of the current UK inflation rate. The RCN says the 3% rise would equate to an extra 72p an hour for the average nurse and would leave nurses £1,600 worse off.
The organisation argues that raising nurses’ pay would help fill the hundreds of thousands of vacancies for nursing roles across the UK and improve treatment for patients. It wants pay to rise by 5% above the RPI rate of inflation (14.2%) as real-terms nursing pay has been cut since 2010.
In Scotland, NHS staff have been offered a pay rise of 5%, except for those on the lowest two bands who have been offered 5.3% and 5.05% respectively. However, this amount falls well short of RPI + 5%.
When Liz Truss was PM, her Health Secretary raised tensions further. In a move the RCN described as “astonishing”, Coffey said she was “not anticipating that we’ll be making any further changes” to the pay offer.
Speaking to Sky News, she said: “I understand that the ballot is now open, we’ve honoured the independent pay review body’s recommendations on this. That was higher than many of the other pay rises that other public-sector workers are getting.”
Rishi Sunak is also taking a self-described “tough stance” on the demands. He subscribes to the controversial economic theory of wage-push inflation - a belief that inflation rises when wages are increased. However, many economists argue that not all wage increases are inflationary - especially if they come after real-terms wage cuts.
When will nurses go on strike?
Nurses across most of the UK will walk out on 15 and 20 December 2022. They will be picketing between 8am and 8pm, but insist emergency care will continue to be provided.
It comes after the RCN ballot of its 300,000 members closed on 2 November after having been open since 6 October. The exact results have not been revealed, but the RCN says staff at most hospitals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be walking out.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “Anger has become action – our members are saying enough is enough. The voice of nursing in the UK is strong and I will make sure it is heard. Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work.
“Ministers must look in the mirror and ask how long they will put nursing staff through this. While we plan our strike action, next week’s Budget is the UK Government’s opportunity to signal a new direction with serious investment. Across the country, politicians have the power to stop this now and at any point.
“This action will be as much for patients as it is for nurses. Standards are falling too low and we have strong public backing for our campaign to raise them. This winter, we are asking the public to show nursing staff you are with us.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay described the result as “disappointing”. He said the RCN’s demands were not “reasonable or affordable”.
On its website, the RCN said strike action was a “last resort”. But it said “unfairly low pay” was “driving chronic understaffing” which was putting patients at risk and damaging nurses’ health and wellbeing. Since then, the government and RCN have blamed each other for the breakdown in pay talks.
It says it will work with the NHS to ensure patient safety is not compromised during the strike action, with the walkout expected to take place at some point before the end of the year.
How much is typical nurse pay?
According to the government, the average basic pay for nurses is currently around £37,000. It was £35,600 until March 2022. It says basic pay for newly qualified nurses (band 5) is £27,055 having been £25,655 until March - an increase of 5.5%. It comes after NHS workers were given a 3% pay rise in 2021/22.
Intermediate pay for a newly-qualified nurse who has had two years of service is £29,180, with four years amounting to £32,934. Band six pay sees wages of between £33,706 and £40,588 depending on length of service. Band seven salaries vary from £41,659 to £47,672.
While the average UK salary is currently £31,772 a year (£611 a week), nurses argue they have seen their pay decline at twice the rate of the private sector pay over the last decade. A report published in October by London Economics that was commissioned by the RCN found real-terms earnings had fallen 6% compared with 3.2% for private sector employees.
Additional reporting by PA