How the NHS has been striking since the 70s: History of hospital walk-outs laid bare


NHS nurses will strike this winter, in what will be one of the biggest walkouts in the health service’s 70-year history. 

The ballot, the largest in the Royal College of Nurses’ (RCN) 106-year existence, will now see strike action in 100 NHS organisations in England. Action will also be taken in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

And there are fears more NHS staff could join them, with over half-a-million workers being balloted by other unions on industrial action over pay.

It’s not the first time that medics and other NHS staff have taken to the picket line to demand better pay or working conditions, however. 

Similar industrial action has occurred since the 70s, including with the junior doctors’ walk-out in 2016 which saw over 300,000 operations and appointments cancelled. 

Here, MailOnline examines the history of some of the most notable strike action in the NHS.

Northern Ireland nurse industrial action 2019/20

Nurses in Northern Ireland voted to take industrial action back in late 2019 over pay.

The unions representing them, including the Northern Irish arm of the Royal College argued that salaries had fallen in comparison to their fellows in the rest of the UK due to pay rises for NHS staff unable to get through political paralysis in Stormont following the collapse of power sharing arrangement.

Unions were also concerned about staffing levels in hospitals. 

Northern Ireland’s nurses were first RCN members to take strike action as part of a dispute over pay and staffing in 2019/20.  Then Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen (front left) led union members then, and is now poised to lead the UK nurses on strike action this winter

The industrial action, coordinated by the RCN and Unison, saw nurses either walk off the job or work to rule across multiple dates in late 2019 and the start of 2020.

Work to rule action saw nurses do the bare minimum that their job asked of them.

This meant they worked no overtime, paid or unpaid, took all their breaks, did not answer phones, and so on.

On some days, this action lasted for up to 48 hours and then culminated in a full-on 12-hour strike by nurses.

While emergency care was not disrupted, the action led to the cancellation of thousands of elective operations and procedures. 

It gives a potential taste about what impending similar action by the RCN could hold for all the UK. 

Strike action by Northern Ireland’s nurses was the first in the RCN’s history at that time, though nothing of the scale of plans this winter.

Eventually, a pay rise to bring salaries closer in line with the rest of the UK was implemented. 

Ministers also promised to implement a safe staffing law, which would enshrine the number of nurses needed to care for patients, but this was delayed due to the Covid pandemic.

Junior Doctors Strike 2016 

Junior doctors in England went on strike for one day per month in the first four months of 2016 to protest against changes to their contracts proposed by then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

In November 2015, almost all of the medics – 98 per cent – voted in favour of industrial action.

On the four strike days – January 12, February 10, March 9 and April 27 – junior doctors refused to provide routine care. 

Hospitals cancelled 300,000 outpatient appointments in response.

Junior doctors could once again ballot for strike action next year in echoes of the 2016 industrial dispute which saw them walk off the job multiple times in that year (pictured)

Junior doctors could once again ballot for strike action next year in echoes of the 2016 industrial dispute which saw them walk off the job multiple times in that year (pictured)

On the final strike day junior doctors also refused to provide emergency care, the first time this had ever happened. 

The dispute only formally ended in 2019 when junior doctors were offered an 8.2 per cent pay rise over four years. 

They’re now contemplating taking action once more after the Government refused to offer junior doctors a 26 per cent pay rise, which they argue is needed to compensate for years of below inflation salary increases. 

General NHS staff dispute on pay 2014

That year the Royal College of Midwives and other unions Unison, Unite, GMB, the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians, the British Association of Occupational Therapists, and Managers in Partnership took industrial action. 

Members of Unite and the GMB also staged similar action in Northern Ireland. 

Workers taking to the picket lines included medical professionals like nurses and midwives as well as hospital estates staff. 

The strike, on October 13, was preceded by four days of working to rule. 

It marked the first strike action specifically over pay in the NHS for 32 years. 

Like other most NHS strikes, emergency care was maintained. 

Royal College of Midwives members took industrial action for the first time as part of coalition of NHS staff unions who protested on pay in 2014. The college is preparing to launch a ballot on full-on strike action in the coming weeks

Royal College of Midwives members took industrial action for the first time as part of coalition of NHS staff unions who protested on pay in 2014. The college is preparing to launch a ballot on full-on strike action in the coming weeks

Staff took to the picket lines after then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt blocked a universal 1 per cent pay rise from being implemented.

He restricted the pay rise to staff who didn’t get an automatic uplift in their pay of about 3 per cent from rising naturally through the NHS pay structure. 

A 1 per cent cap on NHS pay increases wouldn’t be lifted until 2018.

Doctors Pension Strike 2012 

Some 100,000 NHS workers took part in strike action in May 2012 in protest against pension reforms.

It came after 94 per cent of Unite union members rejected the Government’s final pension offer. 

The union argued the contract would see nurses work until they were 65 and pay an extra £30 contribution per month.

Health bosses estimated 30,000 operations were cancelled, more than 1million GP appointments were delayed and 200,000 outpatient consultations were rescheduled.

Nurses strike over pay 1988

Around 2,500 nurses across the UK took part in a day of industrial action in protest against their pay in January 1988, backed by other NHS medics.

Nurses were offered a three per cent pay rise, while national wage increases were set to be scrapped in favour of regional packages, under Government plans. 

Health bosses said just two per cent of the country’s nurses took part but just 200 of the 9,000 operations scheduled for that day went ahead. 

NHS staff strike waves in the 1970s

The first NHS staff strikes in modern history launched in the 1970s. 

In 1973 unions representing the poorest paid NHS workers at the time, such as porters, laundry workers and catering staff, launched a wave of industrial action.

This included working-to-rule, and selective strikes covering certain periods of the day. 

Action lasted six weeks and affected 300 hospitals. 

Nurses also took to the picket line for the first time in this period, though RCN nurses were barred from doing so a due to union’s constitution at the time barring them from strike action.

But nurses from other unions took strike action over pay in 1974, eventually winning a pay rise of 30 per cent.  

Junior doctors were also active for the first time on pay in this period, protesting plans to cut their overtime rates in 1975 by about two thirds. 

The Government eventually capitulated to a series of strikes and walkouts and funded the junior medics overtime rates.

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