Thousands of NHSnurses are staging a second walkout on Tuesday in a bitter row over pay.
Around a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England are taking part in the strike, alongside all trusts in Northern Ireland and all but one health board in Wales.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is demanding a pay rise of 5% above inflation - although it has indicated it would accept a lower offer - but ministers say the salary increase is unaffordable.
When the union submitted the 5% figure to the independent pay review body in March, inflation was running at 7.5%, but it has since increased even further, with RPI standing at 14.4% in September. The government has implemented the recommendations of the independent pay review body, which gave nurses a rise of about 4.75%, with a guaranteed minimum of £1,400.
The strike on Tuesday (20 December) follows a previous walkout last week and will force the NHS to run a ‘bank holiday-style’ service in many areas, with thousands of operations and procedures cancelled and rescheduled. The RCN has said it will still staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care, as well as some other services.
The strike comes just a day before ambulance workers, including paramedics, control room workers and technicians, are also set to walkout in England and Wales on Wednesday (21 December), with health chiefs warning this represents the most serious threat to date.
Speaking ahead of the strike, RCN chief executive Pat Cullen said: “The Prime Minister should ask himself what is motivating nursing staff to stand outside their hospitals for a second day so close to Christmas.
“They are prepared to sacrifice a day’s pay to have their concerns heard. Their determination stems as much from worries over patient safety and the future of the NHS than personal hardship.
“Rishi Sunak is under growing pressure in Westminster following last Thursday’s strike and he should listen to people around him. The public is increasingly with their local nursing staff and this government desperately needs to get on the right side of them. It is unprecedented for my members to strike.
“Let’s get this wrapped up by Christmas. I will negotiate with him at any point to stop nursing staff and patients going into the new year facing such uncertainty. But if this government isn’t prepared to do the right thing, we’ll have no choice but to continue in January and that will be deeply regrettable.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the RCN’s demands are “unaffordable during these challenging times”, adding that a further pay rise “would take money away from frontline services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic.”
Barclay said he is open to speaking with the unions about how to make the NHS “a better place to work”. He is due to meet with unions representing striking ambulance drivers in 11th hour talks on Tuesday, although the discussions are unlikely to avert the action. He also wants to discuss patient safety with Unison, GMB and Unite but his refusal to negotiate on pay means the following day’s strikes are likely to go ahead.
The Health Secretary is understood to hold concerns over whether all emergency calls will be covered, but unions said there would be “no strikes at all if ministers would only talk to unions and improve NHS pay”.
Nurses strikes ‘could last up to six months’
Patricia Marquis, RCN England director, told Times Radio on Monday (19 December) that nurses could strike for up to six months if the government does not sit down to negotiate on pay.
She said: “The only reason we’re entrenched is because we’ve got no-one to talk to about what the issue is. Sadly if there is no resolution, then our members have taken a vote to take strike action and the mandate that lasts for six months. I really hope and I pray that that is not what happens.
“We do not want to see protracted strikes, nor do we want to see further disruption to the NHS and to the services that patients need.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters on Monday that the government had adopted a “fair and responsible approach to pay” and stressed the need to “combat inflation”, which is “making everybody in the UK’s life difficult”.
He said: “Part of us doing that is having a responsible and fair approach to pay. I’m really disappointed to see that the unions are calling these strikes, particularly at Christmas, particularly when it has such an impact on people’s day-to-day lives with the disruption it causes and the impact on their health. I would urge them to keep considering whether these strikes are really necessary and do everything they can to alleviate the impact it’s going to have on people.”