Nursing staff across the NHS have voted to strike over pay and patient safety concerns, a historic step that will fuel fears of widespread disruption across the UK public sector this winter.
Announcing the result of its first ballot on industrial action since its foundation 106 years ago, the Royal College of Nursing union said staff at many of the country’s biggest hospitals had voted to take part in a strike.
However, others hospitals had narrowly missed the legal turnout thresholds to qualify for action, the RCN added. The threshold was met in 176 employers out of 311 where ballots had been held.
Industrial action by RCN members is expected to begin before the end of this year, although the mandate runs until early May. RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “Anger has become action.” She added that nurses would no longer tolerate “a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work”.
The RCN decision sets the stage for an unprecedented wave of industrial action in the months ahead. Ballots covering more than 1mn public sector workers — including the RCN’s more than 300,000 members — are set to conclude over the coming weeks, threatening to affect the running of schools, hospitals and railways.
Unison, the union that represents more than 400,000 NHS workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, launched its own ballot two weeks ago and — if it receives a mandate for industrial action — could call strikes in the new year.
The UK chancellor’s Autumn Statement due on November 17 gave the government an opportunity to signal a new direction and serious investment, Cullen added, insisting that “politicians have the power to stop this now and at any point”.
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay expressed deep “regret that some union members have voted for industrial action”.
The government had accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS pay review body in full and had given more than 1mn NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year, he said. This came on top of a 3 per cent pay increase last year when public sector pay was frozen and wider government support with the cost of living.
“Our priority is keeping patients safe during any strikes. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate,” Barclay added.
The RCN has been campaigning for a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation, arguing that this was needed to address a crisis in NHS recruitment after a decade of real terms pay cuts. In September, UK inflation reached 10.1 per cent — its highest level for 40 years.
The impact of the strike on an already severely stretched NHS may test public support for prolonged action. It could lead to operations and appointments being cancelled, potentially hampering efforts to clear record queues for hospital care.
However, unions argued that pressures have become so acute that many parts of the health system were already operating with staffing levels close to the minimum that would be in place during a strike in order to ensure patients’ safety.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers which represents health organisations across the country, said trust leaders had been planning for possible strikes and “will do all they can to minimise disruption for patients”.
The government needed to sit down with union leaders to find an agreed solution as soon as possible, she added.
The opposition Labour party said the decision to strike represented a failure of Conservative government leadership. “Government ministers spent the summer dodging calls and requests for meetings from the Royal College of Nursing,” said Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary.
Dame Anne Marie Rafferty, professor of nursing policy at King’s College London and a former head of the RCN, said nurses had faced a real terms pay decline of 15 per cent over the past decade.
“People I’m speaking to who in the past would never have countenanced strike action are now saying they feel there is no choice,” she said. “They have reached a point where they feel the system cannot be trusted to look after them, or their patients.”