UK nurses staged an unprecedented one-day strike on Thursday as a “last resort” in their fight for better pay and working conditions, despite warnings it could put patients at risk.
Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are stopping work from 08:00 to 20:00 GMT after rejecting a government pay offer.
The industrial action of the RCN is part of a growing wave of public and private sector employee stoppages.
Picket lines were being set up at major state hospitals, including Guy’s and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust in London.
Ameera, a senior nurse from London, told AFP that “we have not chosen industrial action lightly”.
The strike is the first in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing union.
“We’re tired. We’re fed up,” added the nurse, who asked not to be identified. “We need a raise now to make a living.”
The UK is currently struggling with a cost of living crisis as spiraling inflation outpaces wage growth.
Union leaders and health workers also said nurses were overworked due to staff shortages as the state’s National Health Service (NHS) battled a backlog of appointments made worse by cancellations during the pandemic.
Chemotherapy, dialysis, intensive care and high dependency units, as well as neonatal and pediatric intensive care, will be protected.
But other services will be reduced to Christmas staffing levels during the outage, the RCN said.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said NHS trusts were “pulling out all the stops” to reduce the impact on patients.
“The picture will vary across the country as trust leaders work out service levels with unions locally,” he added.
– Care concern –
Health chiefs warned unions that care levels could suffer as a result of the walkout, just as seasonal respiratory conditions such as flu add pressure to already stretched services.
Cally Palmer, Cancer England’s national director, called on the union to exempt cancer surgery from the walkout, while England’s chief nursing officer expressed concern over plans for staff to strike.
“We hear from our colleagues that they are concerned about the assumption, implied by the RCN, that night duty staff on day duty are safe,” Ruth May wrote in a letter to the RCN.
“The activities of the hall during the day are very different from those at night.
“This decision has the potential to significantly affect the safety of patient care (eg, affecting timely delivery of intravenous antibiotics, patient observations, and medication rounds),” he added.
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Health unions say their members are skipping meals, struggling to feed and clothe their families and leaving the NHS in droves.
The RCN wants a pay rise significantly above inflation which rose to a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent in October, falling slightly to 10.7 per cent last month .
The government maintains the demands are unaffordable and Health Secretary Steve Barclay called the strikes “deeply regrettable”.
– The UK Nurses’ Struggle –
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen has offered to call a “press break” on the strikes if Barclay agreed to the talks.
But Barclay insisted that while he was open to talks on wider issues, the payment deal had been recommended by an independent review body and would not be reopened.
The NHS Pay Review Body recommended a pay rise of at least £1,400 ($1,740) on top of a 3.0 per cent pay rise last year, he said.
“Further pay rises would take money away from frontline services at a time when we are dealing with record waiting lists as a result of the pandemic,” he added.
The main leader of the opposition Labor party, Keir Starmer, called the strike a “badge of shame” for the Conservative government.
Accident and emergency staff nurse Mark Boothroyd, 37, said the cost of living crisis had left nurses struggling to pay bills, transport and rent.
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Poor pay meant newly qualified nurses now only spend a year or two before leaving the profession, said Boothroyd, who works at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London.
The resulting unfilled vacancies have put huge pressure on the remaining staff, many of whom reported mental health problems due to stress.
The conditions were “horrendous and cannot be allowed to continue,” he added.