Ministers are coming under pressure to deal with a growing wave of NHS strikes, after the organization representing NHS trusts warned that planned disruptions by nurses which could last until Christmas were ‘not sustainable’ for the health service.
With nurses expected to be voted on for new strikes after voting to reject what the government called a “full and final” pay offer, the head of the main nursing union said Steve Barclay, the health secretary, would not he seemed willing to listen.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said members rejected an offer of payment from the government, recommended by the union, because they believed the deal was “neither fair nor reasonable”.
It is likely nurses will continue to stage strikes until Christmas, Cullen told BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, adding that there were no plans to coordinate them with continuing strikes by junior doctors.
Speaking later on the same scheme, Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, the membership organization for NHS trusts in England, said ministers needed to act to prevent further strikes by nurses and junior doctors in a separate dispute over the pay.
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“It’s really clear to me that it’s not sustainable going forward for the NHS to manage strike action,” he said. “It seems like a really bad situation to say that we will have strikes until Christmas.
“We really desperately need the government to come to the table, along with the unions coming to the table, to sort this out.”
There are still no signs that Barclay or Rishi Sunak are preparing new offers or openings to health unions. Cullen said Barclay had replied to a letter from him half an hour before his appearance on the Kuenssberg show, but that he said “very little”.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge Sunday programme, Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands called the rejected offer to nurses “complete and final” but dodged questions about what action might follow.
He said: “We are waiting for the other results to come from the other unions. It is reasonable for us during the middle of the voting process to wait to see these further results and we will provide an answer.”
After RCN members voted by 54% to 46% to reject the government’s offer of a 5% pay rise this year and a cash payout for last year, the union announced a new 48-hour strike starting April 30.
RCN members would then be voted into further strike action, Cullen said: “And if that vote is successful, it will mean further strike action, right up to Christmas.”
Cullen defended the plan to step up the type of action, meaning areas such as accidents, emergencies and cancer treatment would not be barred from fresh strikes.
When asked why this was happening, he said: “Because this government hasn’t listened. This is, frankly, the answer.
“This government cannot say, on the one hand we value nurses so much that they shouldn’t go on strike, and then we don’t value them enough to pay them. That is why we are in the crisis we are in.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the membership body for the health service across the UK, said the possibility of combined industrial action would see the NHS enter “unchartered territory”.
“The people I represent are going to have to spend a lot of time in detailed planning, detailed negotiation with local unions to try and ensure life and limb are protected,” he told the Ridge program.
In an article for the Sun on Sunday, Barclay praised members of Unison, another union representing NHS staff, for accepting the pay offer and warned that further strikes could harm patient safety.
Labour’s Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, criticized Barclay for writing in the Sun on Sunday rather than engaging with unions, telling the Ridge show: ‘There is no point in writing to a paper like a dying aunt. You’re the health secretary, show some leadership.
But he also urged the RCN not to escalate its strike action: ‘I think one of the reasons why the RCN has enjoyed wide public support is that in previous rounds of industrial action they have gone out of their way to say, we are we’re going to protect emergency care, we’re going to protect cancer treatment, and I’m deeply concerned about the escalating nature of their dispute.