Nurses’ strike will fuel inflation and ‘help no one’, Health Secretary warns


The nursing union’s pay demands will help no one and could worsen inflation, the Health Secretary has said.

Steve Barclay said the action, which is set to see hundreds of thousands of nurses walk out across the UK before Christmas in a bid for a 17.6 per cent pay rise and better working conditions, is ‘neither reasonable nor affordable’.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) encouraged its 300,000 members to back strikes over the Government’s ‘insulting’ pay offer — which amounts to roughly 4 per cent, or £1,400. It confirmed last week that around 100 hospitals in England will be affected by the disruption.

But Mr Barclay said the strikes are in ‘nobody’s best interests’ and meeting the pay demand — which would cost £9billion, around six per cent of the entire NHS budget — would ‘turbocharge inflation’. He defended the Government’s pay award as a ‘balanced increase’, which is ‘fair for nurses and the taxpayer’. 

But unions today warned that strikes are the ‘only option’ to save the NHS, which is a ‘breaking point’ and staffed by health workers who are ‘struggling to make ends meet’.

Unite, which will ballot thousands more of its 100,000 NHS workers on industrial action, said medics are in a ‘fight for the NHS’s life’ and warned the Government’s budget this week is the ‘last chance to avert a winter of strikes’.

But Unite said medics are in a 'fight for the NHS's life' and warned the Government's budget this week is the 'last chance to avert a winter of strikes' (Unite's general secretary, Sharon Graham, pictured)

Steve Barclay (left) said strike action, which is expected to see hundreds of thousands of nurses walk out across the UK before Christmas in a bid for a 17.6 per cent pay rise, is ‘neither reasonable nor affordable’. But Unite said medics are in a ‘fight for the NHS’s life’ and warned the Government’s budget this week is the ‘last chance to avert a winter of strikes’ (Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, pictured right)

This graph shows the Royal College of Nursing's demands for a 5 per cent above inflation pay rise for the bands covered by its membership which includes healthcare assistants and nurses. Estimates based on NHS Employers data

This graph shows the Royal College of Nursing’s demands for a 5 per cent above inflation pay rise for the bands covered by its membership which includes healthcare assistants and nurses. Estimates based on NHS Employers data

The RCN is just one NHS union which has or is balloting its members over pay

The RCN is just one NHS union which has or is balloting its members over pay

Mr Barclay, who is resistant to negotiating with unions on pay, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘The RCN is demanding a massive pay rise of 17.6 per cent; an increase that is simply neither reasonable nor affordable.

‘It is about three times the average settlement that millions of hard-working people, including many Sunday Telegraph readers, working outside the public sector will typically receive.

‘Huge settlements like these would turbocharge inflation when we are endeavouring to keep it under control.

‘It will have an adverse impact on people’s incomes in the long run.’

Mr Barclay wrote his door ‘will always be open’ to the unions, following a ‘constructive’ meeting with RCN general secretary Pat Cullen in Whitehall on Thursday.

The talks were said to have focused on a ‘wide range of issues’ including patient safety and working conditions.

He went on: ‘If the RCN does go ahead with industrial action, I will make sure that emergency services continue to operate for those that need them most, and patients should continue to come forward for emergency services as normal.

‘But it is inevitable that any strike would mean some patients will have their treatment delayed, and I would urge the unions to consider the impact on those who rely on the NHS for their care.

‘We are facing a difficult winter for our whole country and industrial action is in nobody’s best interests.’

The RCN announced on Wednesday that its members in the majority of NHS employers across the UK — equating to 176 NHS organisations — have backed industrial action.

The health service will turn its attention to treating emergency patients in a ‘life-preserving care model’, with sources saying some hospitals on strike days will have staffing levels similar to those over Christmas.

Some of the most serious cancer cases could still be treated, while urgent diagnostic procedures and assessments will be staffed if they are needed to gather data on potentially life-threatening conditions or those that could lead to permanent disability.

Industrial action is expected to be held before the end of the year at some of the UK’s biggest hospitals, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ opposite Parliament, the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, University Hospital Wales, and Belfast’s Royal Victoria.  

Some NHS medics have called the planned strikes ‘irresponsible’, saying it will impact patient safety. 

The latest NHS data recorded that about 45,000 nursing posts in England are vacant as of the end of June. London has highest percentage missing, with 15 per cent of nursing posts unfilled

The latest NHS data recorded that about 45,000 nursing posts in England are vacant as of the end of June. London has highest percentage missing, with 15 per cent of nursing posts unfilled

NHS data shows efforts to get more nurses into the health service are only barely keeping pace with the number of experienced nurses quitting

NHS data shows efforts to get more nurses into the health service are only barely keeping pace with the number of experienced nurses quitting

The graph shows the current average salary of public sector workers (blue bars) and how much more their unions are asking their pay to be increased by (yellow bars). The nurses' union is asking for a salary increase of five per cent on top of RPI inflation, which currently sits at 12.6 per cent

The graph shows the current average salary of public sector workers (blue bars) and how much more their unions are asking their pay to be increased by (yellow bars). The nurses’ union is asking for a salary increase of five per cent on top of RPI inflation, which currently sits at 12.6 per cent

Official figures show 7.1million people in England were in the queue for routine hospital treatment, such as hip and knee operations, by the end of September ¿ the equivalent of one in eight people (red line). The figure includes more than 400,000 people who have been waiting, often in pain, for over one year (yellow bars)

Official figures show 7.1million people in England were in the queue for routine hospital treatment, such as hip and knee operations, by the end of September — the equivalent of one in eight people (red line). The figure includes more than 400,000 people who have been waiting, often in pain, for over one year (yellow bars)

Meanwhile, emergency care performance has deteriorated to fresh lows. More than 1,400 A&E attendees were forced to wait in more than 12 hours for care every day in October (yellow bars), while the lowest proportion ever recorded were seen within four hours — the NHS target (red line)

Meanwhile, emergency care performance has deteriorated to fresh lows. More than 1,400 A&E attendees were forced to wait in more than 12 hours for care every day in October (yellow bars), while the lowest proportion ever recorded were seen within four hours — the NHS target (red line)

Ambulance performance statistics for October show paramedics took longer to arrive to category one, two and three call outs since records began in 2017. Ambulances took an average of 1 hour, one minute and 19 seconds to respond to category two calls (red bars), such as burns, epilepsy and strokes. This is more than three times as long as the 18 minute target

Ambulance performance statistics for October show paramedics took longer to arrive to category one, two and three call outs since records began in 2017. Ambulances took an average of 1 hour, one minute and 19 seconds to respond to category two calls (red bars), such as burns, epilepsy and strokes. This is more than three times as long as the 18 minute target

Cancer care plummeted in September. Just 60.5 per cent of patients started cancer treatment within two months of being referred for chemotherapy or radiotherapy (red line). The figure is down from 61.9 per cent one month earlier and is the lowest ever reported in records going back to October 2009. The NHS states 85 patients should start treatment within this timeframe

Cancer care plummeted in September. Just 60.5 per cent of patients started cancer treatment within two months of being referred for chemotherapy or radiotherapy (red line). The figure is down from 61.9 per cent one month earlier and is the lowest ever reported in records going back to October 2009. The NHS states 85 patients should start treatment within this timeframe

Nursing strikes Q&A: Everything you need to know 

What was the result of the strike?

Nurses at the majority of NHS organisations on the ballot voted to strike – 176 out of 311 NHS employers across the UK. Some did not meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold.

When will strikes last and how long will the strike last?

Strikes are expected to begin in early December and could take place over two dates, potentially a Tuesday and a Thursday. They could last until early May 2023.

What level of care can patients expect?

The RCN handbook says nursing provision during the strike period should be equal to the skeleton staffing usually seen on Christmas Day, although the NHS says it has well-tested procedures to limit disruption.

Which nurses will remain in post?

Emergency nurses in A&E and intensive care will keep working, as will district nurses who help elderly people in the community. Other exemptions will be negotiated at a local level.

Why are nurses going on strike?

The Royal College of Nursing is campaigning for a pay rise of five per cent above inflation, claiming an experienced nurse’s salary has fallen by 20 per cent since 2010.

What is the pay deal they are unhappy with?

Nurses in England and Wales received a pay increase of at least £1,400 this year, but the RCN claims this left them effectively working a day a week for free.

Have there been nursing strikes before?

Yes – some nurses from the union UNISON went on strike in 2014 and RCN nurses in Northern Ireland walked out in 2019 but this is the first time the RCN has balloted all its 300,000 members in all UK countries in its 106-year history.

Who could be next to strike?

Hundreds of thousands of junior doctors, midwives, physiotherapists, paramedics, ICT staff and porters are among NHS staff either being balloted or expected to be balloted on strike action over anger about pay rises. The next result should be from Unison, who closes its ballot on November 25 after asking 350,000 NHS workers whether they want to strike.

Tories have also called it ‘criminal’, with the RCN itself being branded ‘militant’. 

Hundreds of thousands of NHS staff are yet to confirm whether their profession will join strike action. 

The next result from unions balloting their members should be from Unison, which closes its ballot on November 25 after asking 350,000 NHS workers whether they want to strike.

The British Medical Association, which represents 160,000 doctors and medical students, is balloting junior doctors from January 9.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy opened its ballot to 23,000 physiotherapists in England and Wales yesterday. It will run until December 12.

GMB began balloting almost 20,000 healthcare staff, including more than 15,000 ambulance workers and almost 4,000 non-ambulance staff, on October 24. The ballot will close on November 29. 

Unite will ballot a proportion of its 100,000 NHS members across England and Wales, with the date yet to be announced. It is already balloting almost 3,000 of its ambulance workers in England, with the ballot to close on November 30.

That union today warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that it’s his ‘last chance to save the NHS’. 

Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary, said: ‘Services are at breaking point while workers are struggling to make ends meet. The blame for this lies squarely with the government.’

She added: ‘The Prime Minister should use the budget later this week to avert industrial action and fix the ongoing tragedy of underfunding across the NHS.

‘NHS workers are standing up not just for fair pay but for a properly funded health service.’

It comes as NHS performance nosedived in recent months, with warnings the service is at ‘breaking point’ before winter pressures have even kicked-in.

Official figures show 7.1million people in England were in the queue for routine hospital treatment, such as hip and knee operations, by the end of September — the equivalent of one in eight. The figure includes more than 400,000 patients who have been waiting, often in pain, for over one year.

Meanwhile, A&E performance has deteriorated to fresh lows. More than 1,400 attendees waited 12-plus hours each day in October, while the lowest proportion ever recorded were seen within the NHS target of four hours. Experts warn the true figure is much higher because official data masks the actual length of waits.

Ambulances were slower than ever last month, with paramedics taking longer to respond to 999 calls of all severities. Health leaders say ‘unprecedented demand’ continues to pile strain on the struggling service. 

Cancer care also approached worst-ever levels in September, with just six in ten newly-diagnosed patients starting treatment within two months. 

Top oncologists warned there is a ‘real and frightening possibility’ that Government won’t provide sufficient investment needed to catch-up and more lives will be lost.

NHS bosses today bragged they have cut the number of patients who have been queuing for hospital treatment for 18 months, while dealing with a rise in Covid and flu patients, as well as emergency care pressures.   

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