Nurses are threatening fresh strike action across the whole of the NHS in England after the government imposed a new pay deal for the majority of NHS staff without an agreement with the nursing union.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said it will now ballot members on further strikes between June and December “across the full NHS”. If industrial action does go ahead it is set to cause even more disruption as previous strikes only took place in around half of NHS trusts.
The move comes after Health Secretary Steve Barclay announced that more than a million NHS workers in England are to be given a 5% pay rise this year, plus a cash sum for last year, after the majority of NHS unions agreed to the deal.
Barclay said the deal on the Agenda for Change contract - which includes all NHS workers apart from doctors, dentists and senior managers - was the “final offer” and he urged the RCN and others holding out to join the majority of health unions in accepting it.
The 14 unions representing staff on the contract have balloted hundreds of thousands of members over the last few weeks. Unison, GMB, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and the Royal College of Midwives were among those who voted to accept the offer, while the RCN and Unite voted against it.
The ballot results were reported at an NHS Staff Council meeting on Tuesday (2 May), where the majority of unions urged the government to implement the offer. But the RCN said it remains in “formal dispute” with the government over pay and will ballot its 280,000 members in England over further strikes later this month.
In a letter to Barclay, RCN’s chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen said: “Despite today’s meeting and the outcome that reflects the votes across all unions, the RCN remains in formal dispute with the government and the NHS over pay levels.
“Later this month, we will ballot 280,000 members in England’s NHS over further strike action to be held between June and December 2023.
“We will hold an aggregated ballot under the relevant legislation which, if supported by a sufficient number of RCN members, would provide the legal mandate to take strike action across the full NHS. Until this point, our strike action has been in approximately 50% of NHS trusts and other NHS employers.”
Ms Cullen warned the government against hailing the pay deal “as a success and an end to the industrial action”, adding that the dispute is not over. She told BBC News: “The government knows only too well that nurses remain in dispute with this government, also junior doctors and a number of healthcare workers that are represented by Unite. So this dispute is far from over.”
Ms Cullen said ministers “can’t ignore” the largest group of healthcare workers in the NHS and urged them to get back round the table. She added: “Let’s now get to meaningful talks, let’s put more money on the table and let’s make sure that these nurses don’t have to be re-balloted in May and have to strike up until Christmas.”
The Unite union will also continue to take action over NHS pay levels. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Unite’s NHS members have spoken and they rejected the deal. Because of this, Unite used its seats on the Staff Council to also vote against it. In fact, we will be escalating strike action.
“The Staff Council vote is not binding on individual unions and therefore the vote will not stop Unite representing the best interests of our members.”
Barclay described the government’s pay offer as a “fair and reasonable deal” and said it is his intention to implement it for all NHS staff on the Agenda for Change contract, adding that it is the “final offer” that will be made.
He said: “Where some unions may choose to remain in dispute, we hope their members, many of whom voted to accept this offer, will recognise this as a fair outcome that carries the support of their colleagues and decide it is time to bring industrial action to an end.”
Speaking to reporters, he added: “It is the final offer, it’s important that those unions recognise the collective decision. It was negotiated collectively, the RCN were at the negotiating table, indeed (RCN chief) Pat Cullen recommended this deal to her own members.”
‘NHS isn’t out of the woods yet’
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the “worrying prospect” of further strike action still remains as four trade unions remain in dispute with the government over the pay deal.
He said: “Health leaders are eager for a resolution to be agreed between the government and British Medical Association (BMA), as the last junior doctors strikes saw 196,000 appointments and planned procedures needing to be postponed.
“So, while the NHS Staff Council outcome is very positive news overall, it is not the line in the sand that will allow the NHS and those relying on its care to confidently move on from the threat of future strikes, or from the underlying issues affecting the NHS that led to this activity being felt as necessary in the first place.”
Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, which represents NHS Trusts, added: “We hope that this brings an end to the most disruptive period of industrial action in NHS history. But the NHS isn’t out of the woods yet.
“Industrial action over the past six months has led to more than 531,000 patient appointments being rescheduled, but we must remember that care backlogs stretch back long before strikes and the pandemic due to years of underfunding and many thousands of vacancies.”
Barclay met with junior doctors from the BMA on Tuesday (2 May) to discuss the row over their pay. A government spokesperson said: “The government and the BMA junior doctors committee held a constructive discussion this afternoon, in preparation for talks aimed at resolving the current junior doctors dispute. Both parties will meet again in the coming days.”