Further NHS strikes are set to take place again this week after tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walked out in what was billed as the biggest strike in the history of the healthcare service.
Health leaders have previously expressed “huge concern” for the under-pressure health service as staff leave their post to join the picket line, with the government saying lives could be put at risk. Both the nursing and ambulance unions have said life-preserving treatment will remain in place - however category 2 calls, which can include heart attacks and strokes, would be assessed and only responded to if there was “risk to life and limb”.
It comes amid widespread strike action across many different sectors in the UK. This includes the postal service, the railway network and previous healthcare strikes. Unions representing nurses and ambulance staff have been negotiating with the government in an attempt to agree on a new pay offer - nurses are aiming for a pay increase of 5% above RPI inflation, while ambulance staff are looking for looking for a pay increase to match inflation. Healthcare workers are also striking for better conditions within the NHS.
Health secretary Steve Barclay has insisted that he is “engaging” with unions, however a deal doesn’t look to be any closer. At a health and social care committee hearing, he said: “We are engaging with the trade unions.
“I think if you look at the last meeting we had, the chair of the NHS staff council said that our discussion had been constructive and that’s very much the tenure in which we are engaging with trade union colleagues.”
However, unions have accused Barclay of dodging ambulance staff after he could not find the time to meet with them in parliament on 31 January. The GMB union said that it was “disappointed” by the incident.
On Sunday, the day before the strike, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said neither Prime Minister Rishi Sunak nor Health Secretary Steve Barclay are prepared to discuss pay. She told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme that Barclay “is not telling the truth” when he says there is dialogue going on.
She said: “I can tell you categorically that there has been no conversations on pay whatsoever with Rishi Sunak or Steve Barclay about this dispute, in any way, shape or form. They’ve danced around their handbag, they danced around the edges but they will not talk about pay. To me, that is an abdication of responsibility (as) the dispute is about pay – so how can they say they are in talks?”
Who is taking part in the NHS strikes?
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) confirmed that members would be walking out on 6 and 7 February as they remain in a pay dispute with the government. Around 300,000 nurses in the UK - about two thirds of the workforce - are members of the union.
The strike action is expected to affect more than a third of English health boards. However, strike action has been put on hold in Wales after a pay offer was made to unions on Friday 3 February.
The RCN has said that it will put the new pay offer to its members in the coming days, with strikes also previously suspended in Scotland after a new offer was made. A statement from the union said: “The announcement leaves Westminster as the only government refusing to reconsider the impact of current NHS pay levels and rejecting negotiations that would avert strike action.”
Although staff are walking out, those delivering life-preserving treatment will remain in place, as will those working in intensive care and the emergancy department. Members of the public have been advised that if they are seriously ill or injured, they should still call 999, or 111 for non-urgent care.
Ambulance staff joined nurses in taking industrial action on 6 February. This included members of GMB and Unite unions.
Welsh ambulance staff have suspended all strike dates after an improved pay offer was made from the Welsh government. Unite members in the West Midlands, North East, East Midlands and North West will all take part in strike action on the 6 and 17 February, as well as on 6 and 20 March if a pay deal has not been met.
GMB members in the South West, South East Coast, North West, South Central, North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire will also walkout on the same days as their Unite colleages. Unision members in London, Yorkshire, the South West, North East and North West will take action on 10 February.
Northern Irish staff are due to strike on 16, 17, 23 and 24 February. Much like nurses, ambulance staff will still respond to life-threatening situations while the strike is ongoing, with calls prioritised while staff are on the picket line.
Psychologists in Wales are set to strike on 7 February. Members of the Charted Society of Psychologists (CSP) will walkout over a pay dispute.
They will be joined by psychologists in England later this week, Around 4,200 members will strike in England on 9 February.
Adam Morgan, senior negotiating officer for the CSP in Wales, said: “No one wants to strike but physiotherapy staff have been left with no choice. Patients are struggling to get the care they need because a decade of under-investment in the NHS has led to chronic workforce shortages.
“It’s vital that there is a decent pay offer, not only to retain current physio staff but to attract new people to the profession.”
Emergency psychiatric care will still be available while staff are on strike. Additionally, patients have been adivsed that if they have not been contacted about any changes to appointments, they should attend as normal.
What NHS cover will be provided on strike days?
Unison head of health Sara Gorton, during strikes last month, said all the services involved had emergency cover which, “as a rule of thumb”, saw all life-threatening incidents – also known as category 1 calls – responded to. Category 2 calls, which can include heart attacks and strokes, would be assessed and if there was “risk to life and limb” ambulance staff would leave picket lines to respond.
Grant Shapps, asked if the industrial action will put lives at risk, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I am concerned that it does, if you have a situation which has been happening so far where you don’t have co-operation between the back-up services – typically the Army – and the people who are striking. We have seen the situation where the Royal College of Nursing very responsibly before the strikes told the NHS ‘This is where we are going to be striking’ and they are able to put the emergency cover in place.
“Unfortunately we have been seeing a situation with the ambulance unions where they refuse to provide that information. That leaves the Army, who are driving the back-ups here, in a very difficult position – a postcode lottery when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke when there is a strike on. We cannot have that situation. That is why I am introducing laws for minimum safety levels.”