Nurse strikes: health chiefs call for more cancer services to be provided - healthcare during walkouts explained

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Only critical care and chemotherapy is protected from national strike action, but not urgent cancer surgery

Chief nurses in the UK have warned patients are at risk during upcoming strike action and have called for more cancer services to be provided during walkouts.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) are set to strike on 15 and 20 December over pay and staffing issues, but Dame Ruth May, chief nursing officer for England, has written to Pat Cullen, head of the RCN, to say many nursing leaders feel “let down” by the union.

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The letter has been co-signed by her counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and urges the union to do more to protect patient safety during the walkouts. Obtained by The Times, the country’s four chief nurses write: “Many chief nurses/directors of nursing are, of course, RCN members themselves and some have expressed feelings of having been let down by the RCN.”

It also suggests the union’s refusal to fully staff acute hospital wards and A&E units means patients could miss out on lifesaving treatment such as antibiotics, which must be given quickly to prevent death from sepsis and other severe infections.

The chief nurses warned that some cancer patients are already having chemotherapy cancelled on the strike days despite the RCN claiming it would be exempt. The nurses said local RCN strike committees were defying national union guidance and refusing to guarantee chemotherapy, meaning hospitals were “now preparing to reschedule chemotherapy from 15th and 20th December”.

The nurses are calling for the RCN to make further national derogation - national services exempt from strike action - on Thursday (15 December), including all cancer therapy and mental health services. The RCN has so far only committed to national exemption from strike action in six areas: chemotherapy, intensive care, kidney dialysis, children’s emergency care, children’s intensive care and neonatal services.

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Chief nurses in the UK have warned patients are at risk during upcoming strike action and have called for more cancer services to be provided during walkoutsChief nurses in the UK have warned patients are at risk during upcoming strike action and have called for more cancer services to be provided during walkouts
Chief nurses in the UK have warned patients are at risk during upcoming strike action and have called for more cancer services to be provided during walkouts | Kim Mogg/NationalWorld

In response, the RCN said it agrees with some of the demands set out in the letter. The union said: “Nurse leaders are working closely with us as part of our commitment to make this strike safe and effective. This letter is already out of date as we have met senior clinicians today and agreed key points. The safety of patients is everybody’s top concern. The public backs our campaign and knows that patients need a strong nursing workforce but at the moment there are record losses jeopardising safe care.”

The chief nurses’ letter comes as an NHS cancer care chief asks the RCN to protect urgent cancer surgery from strikes to avoid patient harm. A letter obtained by Sky from Dame Cally Palmer urges Cullen to “consider national derogation for urgent cancer surgery to avoid patient harm”.

The letter continues to say “our common aim is to ensure we don’t cause harm to people undergoing vital cancer treatment to achieve cure or extension of life”. Currently, only critical care and chemotherapy is protected from national strike action, but not urgent cancer surgery.

What is the current guidance?

NHS England says that regardless of any strike action taking place, it is important that patients who need urgent medical care continue to come forward as normal, especially in emergency and life-threatening cases - when someone is seriously ill or injured, or their life is at risk.

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If you have an appointment scheduled and have not been contacted about this, attend your appointment as planned. The NHS will contact you if your appointment needs to be rescheduled due to strike action.

GP services are not impacted by this strike action so patients can continue to attend GP appointments, unless contacted and told otherwise.

On days where there is strike action, patients should only call 999 if it is a medical or mental health emergency - when someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk. Ambulances will still be able to respond in these situations, but this may only be where there is an immediate risk to life.

Where the situation is not life-threatening, alternative support will be available through NHS 111 online or through the NHS 111 helpline. Where possible, it is advised that you arrange alternative transport. The NHS.UK website has more information on when to call 999 and when to go to A&E.

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