Striking NHS workers march from St Thomas’ Hospital to Trafalgar Square in London on May 1, 2023.
(Photo: Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
“Only negotiations can resolve this and I urge ministers to reopen formal discussions,” said one labor leader. “Nursing staff are looking for a fair settlement that shows the government values and understands their profession.”
Nurses and other National Health Service workers walked off the job in half of England’s medical facilities on Sunday night amid an ongoing fight for higher pay and better patient safety in the United Kingdom.
The latest NHS strike comes after Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unite union members voted to reject the right-wing U.K. government’s most recent pay offer, decrying the proposed 5% raise for this year and next as insufficient to offset the soaring prices that have resulted in real pay cuts and a devastating cost-of-living crisis.
Carrying signs with messages such as “strike to save the NHS,” healthcare workers marched in London and other cities on Monday.
“I’m striking because claps and applause don’t pay our wages.”
RCN’s work stoppage, which affects half of England’s hospitals, community health sites, and mental health centers, is slated to last until midnight.
Ahead of the 28-hour action, a critical care nurse named Charlotte explained that she has “been so torn” by RCN’s decision to strike. However, she said, “I know that this is the right thing to do for our patients, their loved ones, for ourselves, for our colleagues, and for the future of the NHS.”
“I’m striking because claps and applause don’t pay our wages,” she continued. “They don’t provide incentives for people to come into the profession, they don’t improve staffing or patient safety.”
“We are a kind, caring, and compassionate profession. We don’t want that light to fade,” she added. “We’re striking and fighting to keep that compassion alive for our patients and for our NHS.”
NHS England warned patients to expect “disruptions and delays to services,” noting that staffing levels in some areas would be “exceptionally low, lower than on previous strike days,” including the massive walkouts in December, January, and February.
According toBBC News, the current strike marks the first time RCN members have “walked out of all areas, including intensive care,” but the union has agreed on “some last-minute exemptions so nurses could be pulled off the picket line to ensure life-preserving care was provided.”
As the outlet reported:
Around a quarter of trusts involved in the strike have been given extra exemptions for services such as transplant and cardiac care—to allow them to call in some striking nurses because they have not been able to find other staff to fill the rotas.
This is to ensure a minimal level of cover—not normal staffing—as the RCN has to abide by trade union rules to ensure life-preserving care can be provided during a walkout.
In previous walkouts, services such as intensive care, chemotherapy, and dialysis have been excluded from strike action.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen lamented that a strike was necessary and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his fellow Tories.
“Only negotiations can resolve this and I urge ministers to reopen formal discussions” with RCN, Cullen said Sunday in a statement. “Nursing staff are looking for a fair settlement that shows the government values and understands their profession.”
“We appear a long way from that currently, but I remind ministers it is entirely in their gift,” the labor leader added.
The current strike comes ahead of a key Tuesday meeting between several healthcare workers’ unions, cabinet ministers, and NHS administrators. While RCN and Unite have condemned the government’s offer as inadequate, other unions have voted to accept it, with Unison leader Sara Gorton recently calling the proposed 5% wage increase “the best that could be achieved through negotiation.”
Given that some nurses have been forced to rely on food banks, RCN is demanding a pay hike of 5% above inflation. Meanwhile, Britain’s Enough Is Enough campaign against neoliberalism on Monday tweeted that lawmakers on the receiving end of “a 32% pay rise since 2010” and subsidized meals are “in no position to lecture a nurse who, since 2010, earns £5,000 less in real-terms about pay restraint.”
RCN’s walkout was supposed to continue through Tuesday night, but a High Court judge ruled last week that the union’s original plans would be unlawful due to the expiration of its six-month mandate for action.
“It is the darkest day of this dispute so far—the government taking its own nurses through the courts in bitterness at their simple expectation of a better pay deal,” Cullen said in response to the ruling. “Nursing staff will be angered but not crushed by today’s interim order. It may even make them more determined to vote in next month’s reballot for a further six months of strike action.”
Unite, meanwhile, is not facing the same legal constraints.
On Monday, Unite members at the Yorkshire ambulance service and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Trust in central London walked off the job, with the latter demonstrating in the capital, BBC News reported. On Tuesday, Unite members at South Central, South East Coast, and West Midlands ambulance trusts as well as workers at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust and Pathology Partnership, East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, and Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust plan to strike.
Unite leader Onay Kasab told BBC that if U.K. Health Secretary Steve Barclay tries to impose the government’s pay offer, the union will take further action.
“We will ballot, and where we have current mandates—some of them lasting up to September—then we will continue taking action, and we will escalate,” said Kasab.
The struggle over the future of the NHS comes as the House of Lords proceeds with its third and final reading of the Tories’ so-called Strikes Bill. The legislation, already approved by the House of Commons, threatens to take away the right of nurses, ambulance workers, teachers, firefighters, rail workers, and others to strike.
Progressive critics argue that the proposal to fire striking public sector workers who refuse to comply with a mandatory return-to-work notice amounts to a “pay cut and forced labor bill” and would constitute a “gross violation of international law.”
During a recent speech denouncing the anti-strike legislation, left-wing Labour Party MP Zarah Sultana said that the bill is about “shifting the balance of power: weakening the power of workers and making it easier for bosses to exploit them and for the government to ignore them.”
Enough Is Enough, for its part, has stated: “You’re either with nurses, teachers, firefighters, and frontline workers. Or you’re with the Tory government. It’s time for everyone to pick a side.”