Health Secretary Therese Coffey has said she is confident nurses will not get a higher pay offer as they vote on strike action.
Thousands of nurses will have begun voting on whether to strike over pay, amid warnings that record numbers are leaving the profession.
Around 300,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) are being asked if they want to mount a campaign of industrial action in the union’s first UK-wide ballot.
What did Therese Coffey say?
The Deputy Prime Minister told Sky News: “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.
“Dare I say it, having respect of the independent pay review body, I’m not anticipating that we’ll be making any further changes.”
Asked then that it seems a strike is inevitable, she said: “That’s a decision for nurses who decide how to vote in this next coming month.”
Responding to Ms Coffey’s comments, Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary, said: “This is an astonishing admission from the Health Secretary – she has already decided she won’t be listening to our half a million members. Ms Coffey has her head firmly in the sand.
“Nurses and support workers hearing this will be angry but it will make them even more determined.
“Members should find their ballot papers today and show the Health Secretary we have a strong voice that she cannot dismiss.
“Ignoring nursing staff is akin to ignoring patients. We have overwhelming public support for the government to do what’s fair by nursing staff and what’s needed for safe patient care.”
What is the union asking for?
The union is demanding nurses receive a salary uplift of at least 5% above inflation, which currently sits at 12.3%.
The RCN said new analysis by London Economics to coincide with the ballot launch showed that pay for nurses has declined at twice the rate of the private sector in the last decade.
The union is now urging nurses to vote in favour of the “once in a generation” ballot after the government refused to meet its pay demands - warning “enough is enough”.
Nurses’ real-term earnings have fallen by 6% compared with 3.2% for private sector employees, it was found.
It is the first time in its 106-year history the RCN has balloted members across the UK on strike action and it is urging them to vote in favour. The ballot closes on 2 November 2022.
Under the union’s proposed figure, the average nurse, who earns roughly £35,600 each year, would get an extra £6,150.
The RCN is also calling for more staff to reduce record waiting lists which have built up during the pandemic.
The RCN said it is inviting members of the public to co-sign a letter to Prime Minister Liz Truss which says: “On behalf of the nursing profession, I implore you to see sense. Protect nursing to protect the public.”
If nurses voted in favour of industrial action, some members might not attend work on the days of the strike.
Although nurses cannot legally be sacked if they participate in official and lawful industrial action, like other workers, there are exceptions such as an intensive care unit, or night duty, who may be exempt from the industrial action and continue working. This is carefully negotiated with NHS bosses before the strike takes place to ensure patient safety.
What has the RCN said about voting to strike?
Mrs Cullen said in a message to those being balloted: “This is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve your pay and combat the staff shortages that put patients at risk.
“Governments have repeatedly neglected the NHS and the value of nursing. We can change this if together we say “enough is enough”.
“Record numbers are feeling no alternative but to quit and patients pay a heavy price. We are doing this for them too.
“I have spoken with hundreds of you directly in recent weeks – it’s clear we need urgent change. Nursing is the best job in the world. Protect it with your vote.”
The RCN said new polling carried out by YouGov showed support from two-thirds of the public for nurses taking strike action, while three-quarters of respondents said there are too few nurses to provide safe care in the NHS.
Health workers in other trade unions are also being balloted for industrial action over pay.
Earlier this year, the government gave most NHS workers a £1,400 pay rise, well below what unions were calling for. The RCN argues this effectively amounts to a pay cut due to inflation.