NHS bosses have shared their worries over a bumper day of industrial action next month, which could see the NHS faced with the biggest staff walkout in its history. Unions have announced plans for ambulance staff and nurses to both strike on 6 February, with health leaders expressing “huge concern” over what implications the biggest day of strike action in NHS history will have.
The day will mark the first ever time ambulance staff and nurses have walked out at the same time. Further strike action is expected, with ambulance staff set to strike again several times throughout February, as well as 6 March and 20 March. Meanwhile, nurses will also take action on 7 February.
The GMB Union, which represents around 100,000 ambulance workers including paramedics and call handlers, the Unite ambulance workers union, and the Royal College of Nursing have remained in a bitter pay dispute with the government, with no signs of the either side coming to an agreement soon.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that the government is committed to having “constructive dialogue” with unions representing health workers, however health secretary Steve Barclay has refused the demand of a 10% pay rise calling it “not affordable”.
NHS Trust leaders warned government of coordinated strikes
The ongoing strikes among health workers has seen action taken on separate days. However, 6 February could mark the first time industrial action has been taken by more than one group of workers in the NHS.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said: “Trusts have been warning for months that coordinated strikes were a possibility if the Government and unions failed to reach an early agreement on this year’s pay award. The prospect of ambulance workers and nurses striking on the same day is a huge concern.
“It could be the biggest day of industrial action the NHS has ever seen. Nobody in the NHS wants more strikes, including staff joining picket lines.
“Trust leaders understand why overstretched staff have reached this point amid chronic staff shortages and ever-growing demand and pressure. We need ministers to get round the table with the unions urgently to deal with the key issue of pay for this financial year, otherwise there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ms Cordery’s sentiment was shared by other NHS bosses. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added: “This escalation takes us deeper in to the situation NHS leaders have been warning against – a war of attrition between the government and unions spanning several months at a time when NHS services are seeing unprecedented pressures.
“Health leaders will now be intensifying plans and preparations for the combined strike of nurses and ambulance workers next month, which will pose a more significant challenge to services than the industrial action we have seen to date.”
Government says 10% pay rise is ‘not affordable’
Sunak told reporters while visiting a London police station that his government was committed to resolving the issue, but inisted that they were seeking to do so in an “affordable” manner. He said: “As we tackle inflation, we need to be responsible with public sector pay settlements, we have to think about what’s reasonable but also what is affordable for the country.
“The Government and all ministers are sitting down, not just with the nurses’ union, but with all unions to have constructive dialogue and find a way through and we’re committed to making sure that we can also reduce the burden of the cost of living on people.”
His comments came as Barclay shot down the call for a 10% pay rise for nurses, stating that this would cost the NHS an extra £3.6 billion a year, which is “not affordable”. He has inisted that he is working “constuctively” with unions to find a solution, but added: “The losers in that [the strikes] are the patients.”
Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “No nurse should be ashamed to say that, actually, they’re really struggling to live on the meagre salaries that this Government’s paying them. It’s their right to be paid a decent wage.”