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Nurses across UK vote to go on strike for first time in dispute over pay – The Guardian

NHS braces for prolonged period of industrial action by health workers over the winter and into next year
Nurses have voted to stage strikes across the UK for the first time in their history in pursuit of a better pay deal, in a move that will seriously disrupt NHS care.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced on Wednesday that nurses at many, but not all, hospitals and other places of NHS care would take industrial action before Christmas and could continue striking until next May.
The impending strikes are likely to be the first in a potentially prolonged series of actions over the winter and into the spring by other groups of health workers, including junior doctors and ambulance staff. NHS bosses are bracing themselves for junior doctors, ambulance staff and others also taking action.
The move comes amid mounting action by public sector workers. Rail staff have staged regular strikes over the last five months in their pay dispute, as have Royal Mail personnel, while 70,000 members of the University and Colleges Union decided on Tuesday to take industrial action, all over pay. The Public and Commercial Services union is due to announce on Thursday if civil servants will be joining the growing wave of action.
It is the first time in the RCN’s 106-year history that it has instigated a statutory ballot of its members across all the countries of the UK about industrial action.
“Anger has become action. Our members are saying enough is enough,” said Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary and chief executive. “Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work.”
But the RCN did not disclose how many of the 300,000 members it balloted had voted or how many had endorsed or rejected strike action.
The results of the ballot reflect widespread anger among nurses that the government has refused to increase the offer it made in July of a pay increase of at least £1,400 to about a million people working in the health service in England, excluding doctors and dentists, which is worth between 4% and 5%.
Cullen urged the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to use his budget next week to come up with extra money to give nurses a much bigger rise and thus avert the prospect of a long-running dispute.
“Ministers must look in the mirror and ask how long they will put nursing staff through this. While we plan our strike action, next week’s budget is the UK government’s opportunity to signal a new direction with serious investment,” she said.
But Steve Barclay, the health secretary, said that ministers “deeply regret that some union members have voted for industrial action”. Sources at the Department of Health and Social Care claimed that the RCN was seeking a 17.6% pay rise which, if applied to all NHS staff apart from doctors and dentists, would cost £9bn.
Health unions have condemned the £1,400 offer as “an insult” and “derisory” and amounting to a real-terms cut in staff’s pay, given that inflation is running at 10.1%. They have been pressing for increases that at least match inflation, while the RCN has been seeking a rise of 5% above inflation.
Services will have to be scaled back at many UK hospitals where nurses voted to strike. However, others will be unaffected because either at least 50% of members there did not take part in the workplace-based ballot or at least 50% of those voting did not back strikes, which are two of the legal hurdles that trade unions must overcome before striking.
Nurses voted to strike at many major hospitals, such as St Thomas’ in London – opposite the Houses of Parliament – as well as the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, University Hospital Wales in Cardiff and the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. In contrast, nurses at hospitals run by the city’s Manchester University acute trust did not vote to strike, but those at three other trusts in Greater Manchester did.
NHS bosses in England have pledged to prioritise “critical services” such as A&E and emergency surgery during the strikes, but planned operations and outpatient appointments are likely to be postponed and sessions of chemotherapy or kidney dialysis rearranged.
The lack of nurses to run the usual range of services will mean that hospitals offer only the sort of pared-down level of service they usually provide on a weekend or during a bank holiday.
The RCN has not said when the first strike will happen. But it is likely to be in early to mid-December and take place over two days, possibly a Tuesday and a Thursday, to show ministers the depth of feeling over the issue.
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Experienced nurses’ salaries have fallen by 20% in real terms since 2010, according to research the RCN commissioned from the consultancy London Economics. However, the Health Foundation has calculated that nurses’ pay fell by a lot less – 5% – after adjusting for inflation between 2011 and 2021.
In Scotland, RCN members at all the country’s health boards and all its NHS agencies voted to strike after rejecting a pay offer from Scottish ministers, which was higher than the offer made to nurses in England and Wales.
RCN Scotland rejected an initial 5% offer from the Scottish government and balloted its 40,000 members on strike action. Ministers in Edinburgh then proposed a revised flat-rate increase of £2,200 per head. That would increase the pay of a newly qualified nurse by about 8%, but the union said it still meant a real-terms cut for a large majority of nurses.
The college, which picketed the Scottish National party’s annual conference in October to demand a better deal, said its members wanted at least 10% across the board. Last week, Scotland’s acting finance secretary, John Swinney, said the government could not afford higher public sector pay deals, unless services were cut.
The UK government’s education secretary, Gillian Keegan, was ridiculed earlier on Wednesday after saying that nurses used food banks because their “relationship or boiler” had broken down.
Asked on Sky News about nurses resorting to using food banks, she replied: “Quite often when you go to food banks something will have happened, you know, something will have broken down – either a relationship or boiler or anything. Usually they’re in an emergency situation.”
Rachel Harrison, the national secretary of the GMB union, said Keegan’s remarks demonstrated “a staggering lack of empathy”. Nurses and other NHS workers had been forced to rely on food banks “because they are desperate after more than a decade of real-terms pay cuts under the Conservatives”.
“Does Ms Keegan think we have 135,000 vacancies in the NHS because of break-ups?” Harrison asked.
The minister also said nurses would be wasting their time by striking. “I don’t think there’s any point in going on strike,” she said. “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.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said the £1,400 minimum rise on offer came a year after NHS workers got a 3% rise in 2021-22 at a time when pay across the rest of the public sector was frozen.

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