LONDON – Nurses across the UK went on strike on Thursday to demand a raise and better working conditions, the first such strike in the history of the country’s venerated National Health Service.
Despite freezing temperatures across much of Britain, nurses picketed outside some hospitals as the 12-hour strike began. Wearing hats and gloves and holding signs that read “Staff shortages cost lives,” they called for higher wages and more workers.
Nurses will continue to provide the most vital services, such as intensive care units and chemotherapy, dialysis and some pediatric services, but non-urgent medical care will be much less available. Hospitals and other health centers say they have tried to manage schedules to ensure the safety of patients during the performance.
The nurses’ strike is one of a series of industrial actions taking place in Britain this month as skyrocketing inflation, rising interest rates and a recession put pressure on workers. Railway employees, airport baggage handlers and ambulance workers are among others scheduled to walk out in the coming weeks.
The strike comes as the NHS is in crisis, with declining working conditions for clinical staff and amid the overwhelming pressures of the pandemic. There have been record delays in ambulance response times and a significant backlog of medical procedures, among many other problems.
The nurses’ union, the Royal College of Nursing, has called for a 19 percent increase, noting that small increases in the past have made it difficult to attract and retain workers. According to union representatives, nurses are leaving the profession at high rates, citing low wages and staff shortages that force them to work long hours.
The government has said this increase is unaffordable and has offered a much smaller increase.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said in a video statement before the strike that her members were “committed to our patients and always will be”.
But, he added: “When, as a society, did we stop valuing the basics of caring and the dignity of people? That’s not who we are. It’s unreasonable to demand better.”
The union made the decision to strike after polling its more than 300,000 members, who make up about a third of the health service workforce.
On Thursday, nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland went on strike after negotiations broke down, although nurses in Scotland called off strike following a new pay offer. An estimated 100,000 nurses will be involved in 53 different NHS organizations in England alone. Nurses in all but one zone were on strike in Wales, and nurses in Northern Ireland walked out.
Union representatives met Britain’s health secretary, Steve Barclay, on Monday, but union representatives said the meeting had been brief and had failed to achieve any of its stated aims.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, said nurses had been offered a “fair” pay deal and that the government had “constantly spoken to all unions involved in all pay disputes”, in reference to the different strikes planned for this month.
Mr. Sunak added that he wanted to “record what we have done for nurses”, noting that they were given a 3 per cent rise last year, even as many other public sector wages were frozen.
But amid rising inflation, that increase doesn’t amount to much, say union representatives, who add that the sector has long been underfunded, making it difficult for nurses to make ends meet.
“It’s payback, it’s not asking for extra money, if you break it down,” Ms. Cullen, the union boss, speaking to the BBC from a picket line early on Thursday. He said the union had been unable to reach an agreement because the government had refused to consider a further rise.
Further industrial action is expected in the NHS. Nurses plan to strike again in December. 20, while the ambulance service is scheduled for December. 21 and December 28.