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UK strikes set to escalate as nurses brace for ‘unprecedented’ walkout


Nurses in the UK have reached a breaking point.

As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing will march across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday in the first of two days on strike this month to protest over wages and salaries poor working conditions. They plan to leave on December 20. (Nurses in Scotland are negotiating a separate pay offer.)

It’s the first time in its 106-year history that the RCN – the UK’s largest nurses’ union – went on strike in England. The action was sparked by a cost of living crisis that has reduced nurses’ purchasing power nearly three years into a pandemic that has pushed many to their limits.

“It’s pretty unprecedented,” Billy Palmer, senior researcher at the Nuffield Trust, a health research company, told CNN. While small pockets of nursing staff have already come out, the country’s National Health Service has seen “nothing of this magnitude so far”, he added.

This is partly because for most of its history the RCN has had a “no strike” policy. In 1995, the union changed its rules, allowing strikes as long as they did not compromise patient care.

“Patient safety is always paramount,” the MRC says on its website, adding that some nursing staff will continue to work during the strike. The MRC has promised to maintain essential services, including chemotherapy and dialysis treatments, during shutdowns this month.

The nurses join hundreds of thousands of other British workers who go on strike in December, including railway workers, postal workers and ambulance workers. At the center of those disputes are wages, which are failing to keep pace with inflation that hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October.

It is the widest wave of industrial unrest since the country’s famous “Winter of Discontent” in the late 1970s, when large numbers of workers, from truckers to gravediggers, went on strike.

The chaos prompted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to warn that “tough” new laws restricting strikes are on the way.

Earlier this year, the MRC rejected a government offer to raise nurses’ pay by at least £1,400 ($1,707) a year. The offer amounted to an average increase of 4.3%, well below the rate of inflation.

Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the RCN, said last month that “enough [was] enough,” and that nurses “would no longer tolerate a financial knife at home and a raw deal at work.”

Union says it wants 19% pay rise – a 5% increase on 14% inflation, as measured by the October retail price index – and for the government to fill a record number of vacancies which it says are jeopardizing patient safety .

The RCN knows that’s optimistic, Palmer said. Nurses aren’t “really keen” on such a raise, he said, but are simply using it as a starting point for negotiations.

But that demand is “not affordable,” Steve Barclay, Britain’s health secretary, told CNN in a statement. Each additional 1% wage increase for nurses would cost the government around £700m ($854m), he added.

Barclay said on Twitter last month that industrial action would have an “inevitable” impact on services, but that the NHS had “tested plans in place to minimize disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate”.

The dispute has its roots in previous grievances. The 360,000 nurses who work for the NHS the largest professional group in the service – have suffered from years of underinvestment, argues the RCN.

In 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government embarked on a decade of austerity to stabilize the country’s finances after the global financial crisis.

Nurses’ pay fell by 1.2% each year between 2010 and 2017 once inflation was taken into account, according to The Health Foundation, a British charity that campaigns for better health and healthcare. For the first three of those years, their salaries were frozen.

Despite salary increases in the years that followed, the Nuffield Trust estimates that the typical salary for a nurse – around £40,000 ($49,000) for experienced nurses working full-time – has fallen by almost 6%. %. after inflation compared to ten years ago. This compares to a 0.6% increase in private sector wages over the same period.

Internationally, it’s difficult to compare the pay of UK nurses, as healthcare systems differ widely from country to country, but it’s somewhere in the middle of the range of comparable economies, said Palmer.

“Almost anyway, we’re about in the middle, usually [we] a little worse than Germany but a little better than France, and we certainly look worse than the Anglosphere, like Australia and the United States,” he said.

This is also true for overall NHS spending. While the government has increased funding over the past decade, the gains have been “marginal,” according to Palmer. Once inflation and demographic changes are taken into account, spending in England has grown by just 0.4% a year since 2010, according to data from the Nuffield Trust.

Salary is not the only problem. Nurses are also exhausted, partly because there are a record 47,000 vacancies in England.

Data from the Nuffield Trust shows that 40,000 nurses in England, around 11% of the entire nursing workforce, left their jobs in the year to June. A similar number joined – nearly 45,000 – but that was not enough to fill the gaps.

Most nurses have left to retire, but the number citing work-life balance, the second most common reason for leaving, is nearly four times higher than a decade ago.

And others might give up if conditions don’t improve. An RCN survey of its members last December showed that 57% of respondents were considering leaving. Feeling undervalued and working under too much pressure were the main reasons given.

Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund, a think tank, told CNN the past decade has been “difficult” as enrollment has lagged behind demand. The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems.

“[Nurses were] having to manage the iPad call between someone who [couldn’t] to be visited by relatives in their final hours,” Warren said. “[It was] really emotionally draining.

Zahid Mahmood contributed reporting.

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