Words by Beth Brown

Nurses across the UK have voted to go on strike, for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s history. Founded in 1916, over 106 years ago, the RCN issued its first statutory ballot to its 300,000 union members concerning industrial action. 

The ballot took place between October 6th and November 2nd 2022, however the RCN have not announced how many of its 300,000 members voted, or how many supported the strike action. 

In July 2022, the government confirmed they would provide a pay increase of £1,400 to approximately one million people working in England’s health service, which equates to a 4-5% increase. However, this increase was far below what trade unions were asking for, and prompted a lot of criticism. A particular concern is this pay rise does not match the current inflation rates, lowering the raise’s ‘real term’ value. The RCN is campaigning for a pay increase 5% above RPI inflation, which would result in a 17.6% increase. The government responded saying that The Fair Pay for Nursing campaign would likely cost around £9 billion. 

The RCN have announced that the government’s July pay increases actually left experienced nurses 20% worse off in real terms than a decade ago. In a press release from November 9th, the RCN discussed how this year around 25,000 nursing staff left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register. In addition, there are 47,000 unfilled registered nurse posts in England’s NHS, leaving nearly 12% of nursing positions unfilled. These staff shortages, that raise concerns for patient safety, are partially caused by poor pay. Beyond this, one in four hospitals have set up food banks for nurses to help tackle the cost of living crisis. 

In August/ September of 2022, NHS Providers surveyed NHS trust leaders. All involved were shown to be concerned about the wellbeing of their staff, with 61% reporting a rise in mental-health related staff absences. 

Pat Cullen, the General Secretary & Chief Executive of the RCN, told Sky News that “nurses are living on a knife-edge.” 

“Our independent analysis shows that every nurse is working one day a week free every week. What a way to treat the nursing staff that hold the health service together.”

In a RCN press release from September 1st, Cullen discussed the importance of the proposed industrial action. 

‘If we are trying to keep the brilliant nursing staff we’ve got, if we are trying to address the thousands and thousands of vacancies that we’ve got, and if we are trying to seriously stop the health service from falling over the precipice, then we have to do something about pay.’ 

Natalie, a Paediatric A&E Staff Nurse, provided some insight into the importance of the strikes. 

“…I think it’s [important for people to know] it’s not just about the money, we’re so understaffed everywhere. It’s causing more and more incidents in the workplace. For example, where I am, in Paeds A&E, there’s [only] three nurses. And often, if one calls in sick it’s [just] me and one other nurse running a whole A&E with 40 kids, which is so unsafe.” 

“…We’re also striking to be noticed by the government because we’re missed time and time again, in pay rises and their gratitude. It’s so unfair because every year we are seeing [more patients] with less staffing and it’s so hard. The last pay rise [I received] ended up not making a difference with student loan, tax and national insurance deductions. I earn £9.78 an hour [for shifts] where I don’t even have a break because I’m just too busy.”

This industrial action has sprung from a history of nurses being underpaid and overworked, which has been highlighted by events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis. However, there has been criticism of the proposed strikes. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said to Sky News: “I don’t think there’s any point in going on strike.”

“I would urge the nurses to continue those discussions, but the reality is if we gave massive above-inflation rises, not only would we have to raise a lot more money, but it would actually fuel inflation.”

“This is the problem. We really have to tackle inflation.”

In the same interview, Keegan suggested that the reason NHS nurses were resorting to food banks was due to a broken “relationship or boiler.” 

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that he was “saddened” by the news of industrial action. He argued that “this year, amid the huge pressure on the public finances after the pandemic, the government gave nurses a proportionate, balanced pay increase.”

These strikes will likely occur within a larger framework of strikes over winter, as many are expecting other NHS workers to take part: such as ambulance workers. For example, the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee has voted to go to a ballot on strike action early next year, with the results pending. In addition, in Northern Ireland, members of the GMB union are expected to strike before Christmas. In Scotland, another 4000 GMB members have also supported industrial action. Jim Donley, GMB organiser notes: “They’re being pushed to the limit.”

“But more than pay, this is as much about patient safety. A third of GMB ambulance workers think delays they’ve been involved with have led to the death of a patient. The NHS in Northern Ireland is on life support—the Westminster government needs to provide urgent extra funding or the service as we know it will cease to exist.”

Each hospital required a 50 per cent turnout threshold for strike action. 102 of the 215 NHS trusts in England managed this, as well as all nursing staff in Northern Ireland and Scotland being included. Only one of the health boards in Wales did not meet the threshold. 

The RCN have announced that industrial action will take place before Christmas, and could continue until May 2023. The widespread strikes will see many hospitals cutting back on their services, with “critical services” being prioritised. However, the RCN has promised all strike action will be done “legally and safely at all times.” For example, they will continue to meet the required minimum safe staffing levels. NHS England have released information to trusts on how to prepare for the industrial action to reduce patient disruption. 

Featured Image Courtesy of The Times

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