Nurses could resign later this month as the first NHS staff to go to the picket line this winter.
The UK’s nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has today closed the historic strike of its 300,000 members.
The 106-year-old union is demanding a 5 percent pay increase from nurses above inflation, which is currently 12.3 percent.
This is well above No10’s current bid, which is about 4 percent. Bowing to union pressure could cost taxpayers an additional £1bn.
The results of the RCN vote could be announced as early as next week.
If nurses vote to go ahead with a walkout, the law will require the strike to be held in England, Scotland and Wales within six months of today. It offers the possibility of a walk-out in the spring.
However, any action must take place within one month of the closure of the polls in Northern Ireland.
It means nurses there could kick off the NHS’s winter of discontent, possibly before the end of November.
The Royal College of Nurses wants nurses to get a 5 percent pay rise above inflation, well above the roughly 4 percent No10 offers
Strike action of NHS nurses explained
What is happening?
Britain’s nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has closed a landmark strike vote over pay levels for NHS nurses.
What does the union want?
The union wants nurses to receive a wage increase of 5 percent above inflation, which is currently around 12 percent. This is well above the government’s offer of about 4 percent.
What happens now that the vote is closed?
The RCN will count the votes by British nation and the results are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
What outcome is needed for nurses to strike?
Trade union laws vary by country in the UK.
In England and Scotland, 50 percent of eligible members must vote for the vote to be valid, and at least 40 percent of the vote must be in favor of the action for the result to count.
For Wales, at least 50 percent of eligible members must vote, but only a simple majority is needed to determine the outcome.
Northern Ireland has the fewest restrictions on strike ballots, requiring only a simple majority of those voting with no minimum turnout threshold.
When can nurses go on strike?
Northern Ireland requires strikes to take place within a month of the polls close, i.e. before 3 December.
The law in England, Scotland and Wales states that strikes must take place within six months of the closing of the polls, i.e. between now and the beginning of May.
Have dates been announced?
No. It is also unclear whether the strike will be held continuously, for example several days in a row, or on certain days spread over the month.
Won’t a strike endanger patients?
Unlike other staff groups who take strike action, such as train drivers, nurses are required to maintain a minimum staff level to keep patients currently in hospital safe and from any emergency admissions.
Thus, some nurses will be exempted from the strike to provide this minimum level of service.
The exact numbers still at work are being negotiated locally between the RCN and each NHS Trust/Board.
If some nurses are still working, what’s the point of a strike?
While life-saving care will be provided, a nurse strike is likely to result in the cancellation of hundreds of routine surgeries such as hip or knee replacements or diagnostic tests such as cancer scans.
Similar large-scale strikes by junior doctors in 2016 led to the cancellation of 100,000 patient appointments.
Can nurses be fired for on strike?
No. NHS workers cannot be legally fired if they participate in official and lawful industrial action.
Will the government give in to RCN’s demands?
Unknown. But if the No. 10 gives in to nurses, it will come under pressure to offer similar pay increases to other NHS staff groups, with young doctors, midwives and other healthcare staff also advocating inflation-cutting pay increases.
At a time when public authorities are being asked to tighten their belts due to financial pressures, the government is likely to claim that it cannot pay NHS staff more than it is already offering.
The NHS is also preparing for possible industrial action from other staff groups with young doctors, midwives and non-clinical workers such as cleaners and porters who are also considering industrial action.
It comes as NHS hospitals in England have been ordered to plan a military-style operation to prepare for potentially devastating attacks this winter.
Officials have been told every element of the service is ready if historic, NHS-wide industrial action, an operation dubbed Exercise Arctic Willow, continues.
Widespread strikes can cause thousands of operations and appointments to be cancelled. Tories have warned that strikes would be ‘criminal’ and risk lives, although NHS unions dispute this.
The operation — an extension of the usual winter drills conducted by trusts to plan for incidents such as flu outbreaks — is set to take place in mid-November.
It shows how seriously the NHS is taking the threat of large-scale strike action this winter, but so far No10 and the unions remain at odds.
RCN Secretary General Pat Cullen has said the current government offer – in reality around £1,400 per nurse – ‘makes a difference to a nurse’s wage of 72 pence per hour’.
This, the union claims, is driving nurses to leave the NHS for higher paying jobs in retail and hospitality, exacerbating the staff shortage.
The RCN demands that nurses receive a salary increase of 55% above inflation. This would give the average nurse, who earns about £35,600 a year, an extra £6,150.
If the strike continues, the RCN is expected to maintain minimum staffing levels to ensure patients have access to emergency care, urgent diagnostic procedures and are not at risk of death or disability.
Like other workers, NHS staff cannot be legally fired if they participate in official and lawful industrial action.
Nurses could be joined by midwives later in the year, and the Royal College of Midwives will launch its own ballot next week.
The British Medical Association, a trade union representing 160,000 GPs, consultants and doctors in training, has also warned that industrial action by the profession is ‘inevitable’.
It plans to poll young doctors in January — demanding the equivalent of a 26 percent pay increase.
Meanwhile, Unison is asking 350,000 NHS staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including porters, nurses, paramedics and cleaners, to vote to leave.
A vote of 50,000 members in Scotland, already underway, has been suspended after a new wage offer.
Fellow NHS staff association, GMB, is demanding a 15 per cent pay increase, or £2 more per hour, from NHS staff of all levels, including cleaners and porters.
If multiple NHS staff ballots on union action are successful, it’s could see thousands of doctors and nurses walk out in protest over their pay in early 2023.
This would coincide with a busy winter for the NHS with the health service is expected to be battered by additional admissions for Covid, flu and other seasonal viruses – combined with higher staff sickness rates and a record backlog.
Some Tories have described the prospect of industrial action at this point as ‘criminal’ and that it will endanger lives.
Steve Turner, Tory Commissioner for Cleveland in Yorkshire, said walkouts endanger patient safety and put pressure on other busy services, such as the police.
On Monday, he told the BBC TV show Politics North that not all doctors, nurses and other health care professionals have “the worst salaries” and that it is unrealistic to offer them a raise to match inflation.
Data from the NHS shows efforts to get more nurses into healthcare are barely keeping up with the number of experienced nurses quitting
‘From the perspective of the police, if there is no ambulance or’ [people] unable to get hold of a caregiver while [nurses] go on strike, they’re going to pick up the phone and call a police officer.’
He said police officers, who have weathered the pandemic and are risking their lives on a daily basis, will show up.
“What I am saying is that you are endangering people’s lives and you are putting pressure on other people by taking this action,” Mr Turner said.