Up to one million NHS workers could walk out over pay conditions this winter, prompting fears that blood tests will be delayed, chemotherapy cancelled and dialysis treatments postponed if strikes go ahead.
Unite has become the seventh union to announce a ballot, meaning that up to two-thirds of service staff could be involved in strike action over the coming months.
Biomedical scientists are being asked to join the walk out, according to The Daily Telegraph, depriving hospitals of staff members able to analyse blood tests.
The NHS carries out 130 million blood tests in England every year, usually to screen for infection, genetic conditions or to see if organs are working properly.
Health insiders said if the strikes went ahead, it could see hospitals fall into disrepair and patients’ calls go unanswered.
MPs warned workers to ‘think very carefully’ over strike action and pay demands that ‘would just break the NHS completely’.
Unite said it would ballot a proportion of its 100,000 NHS members across England and Wales, who work in areas including nursing, counselling and psychotherapy, dental professions, maintenance, administration and ICT.
The action is expected to lengthen the backlog of patients waiting for treatment this winter.
The NHS could lose two thirds of its workforce to strikes this winter, with all the major health unions set to vote on walkouts
MPs warned workers to ‘think very carefully’ over strike action and pay demands that ‘would just break the NHS completely’
Nurses are just one of the NHS staff groups demanding higher pay than the Government offer. Junior doctors are arguing for a rise of 26 per cent, and NHS staff unions such as GMB are calling for all staff to get a 15 per cent pay rise
It comes just a day after the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy announced it was opening a ballot for industrial action to more than 20,000 physiotherapists.
It is on top of the more than 850,000 NHS staff members, from nurses, junior doctors and midwives, that are either being balloted or are expected to be balloted on strike action over pay. There are around 1.4 million NHS workers in total, according to NHS Digital data.
Tory MP Mark Jenkinson said: ‘In the same way as the police can’t walk out, I think those who choose the caring professionals need to think very, very carefully about the impact on the wider NHS.
‘I fully understand the pressures of nurses but I heard a nurse this morning saying that nothing below 5 per cent above inflation will do, but that would just break the NHS completely.’
Critical care in life-threatening situations should not be put at risk if strikes take place, but elective treatment, outpatient care and other healthcare services, including chemotherapy, dialysis and surgery, are likely to be impacted.
If the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) votes in favour of action, strikes could take place next month
NHS data shows efforts to get more nurses into the health service are only barely keeping pace with the number of experienced nurses quitting
The latest NHS data recorded that about 45,000 nursing posts in England are vacant as of the end of June. London has highest percentage missing, with 15 per cent of nursing posts unfilled
A Unite source said that if maintenance workers were to strike, NHS buildings could be left with delays in broken windows being fixed, lightbulbs being changed or air-conditioning and filtering systems being repaired.
Similarly, if workers who look after software systems take industrial action, there could be a delay in services getting back up and running, the source said.
It is unclear when strikes for the various unions could take place, but it is understood that if the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) votes in favour of action, it could take place next month. More than 300,000 members voted in the RCN’s ballot, the first in its 106-year history. It is understood that a large majority have voted to walk out.
Healthcare staff cannot legally be sacked if they participate in official and lawful industrial action. However, unlike other sectors, some staff will continue to work. The specific exemptions are negotiated with each NHS trust.
A government spokesman said: ‘We value the hard work of NHS staff, including nurses, and are working hard to support them – including by giving over one million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year… on top of 3 per cent last year when pay was frozen in the wider public sector.
‘Industrial action is a matter for unions, and we urge them to carefully consider the potential impacts on patients.’
The NHS waiting list for routine operations in August in England breached 7million for the first time ever. This includes almost 390,000 patients who’ve been forced to wait over a year for treatment
A&E waits have also breached a record, with the number of patients facing 12-hour waits exceeding 30,000
Ambulances took an average of 47 minutes and 59 seconds to respond to category two calls , such as burns, epilepsy and strokes. This is more than twice as long as the 18 minute target
NHS England continued to fail to hit targets to start treatment for the disease within two months of an urgent referral
All goodwill earned in the pandemic will just melt away
Commentary by Dr Martin Scurr
Everybody working in the NHS – whether as a nurse, a doctor or a carer – signed up for a life of public service. Whatever happens, the patients come first.
All of us must abide by that ancient principle: ‘First, do no harm.’ It is as right and true today as it has always been but, sadly, many health workers now regard it as a reactionary notion.
Dr Martin Scurr: Everybody working in the NHS – whether as a nurse, a doctor or a carer – signed up for a life of public service. Whatever happens, the patients come first.
That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from reports that a large majority of 300,000 Royal College of Nursing members have voted to strike over pay.
This would absolutely be the wrong thing to do and I can only hope that many of those who voted for industrial action have done so purely as a bargaining tactic. I want to believe that the vast majority of them are crossing their fingers and praying that the dispute does not culminate in a strike.
Many other health workers’ unions, from junior doctors and physiotherapists to midwives and paramedics, have either balloted their members or are expected to do so over strike action this winter.
There’s a real risk that up to half of all NHS staff will suspend duties, not all at once but in a staged series of rolling, politically motivated walkouts. This is calculated to cause maximum disruption to every aspect of healthcare.
The callousness is shocking – and the cost to human life is frightening to imagine. This year has seen an escalation in the willingness of activists to put other people’s lives at risk, such as the fuel protesters who stop emergency services getting through.
But to see NHS staff adopting the same ruthless tactics is chilling. Without paramedics, ambulances cannot function. Without junior doctors, already overstretched A&E departments will be under greater pressure than ever.
Such mass action is unthinkable and I can only beg my colleagues across the health service to see sense and respect the profession they chose.
If they decide on industrial action, it could well happen before Christmas, the worst possible time for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that, with the onset of winter – as seasonal illnesses start to peak – the NHS enters a critical period.
We are already facing appalling backlogs as a result of the pandemic.
There’s a real risk that up to half of all NHS staff will suspend duties, not all at once but in a staged series of rolling, politically motivated walkouts
The number waiting to start hospital treatment has topped seven million in England, an all-time high. Another 1.5 million are waiting for a scan or test. Now more than ever, hospitals need all their staff to be prepared to work overtime, putting in extra hours to fulfil the waiting list clearance initiatives.
By withdrawing their labour at this critical time, NHS workers will force even more treatments to be postponed.
With deaths from cardiac disease and cancer rising steeply in the wake of the pandemic, it’s irresponsible and negligent to do anything that makes it harder for people to access the healthcare they need.
It’s also hugely frustrating to see the nurses’ union in particular throw away so much of the goodwill built up by their members during the pandemic.
When the public stood on their doorsteps every Thursday night during the first lockdown, to cheer and bang saucepans, it was a sincere expression of their gratitude and admiration. We all knew how much our health workers were sacrificing. They risked their lives for patients, and some paid the ultimate price. To squander that support would be a tragedy.
Yes, it’s deplorable that their wages, in real terms, have decreased by around 15 per cent since the economic crash of 2008. But at a time when the whole country is facing a cost of living crisis, nursing is still a comparatively well-paid job, with a good pension and a salary that is better than many others working in health and care.
Nursing has always been a vocation, and, as such, deserving of great respect. When I started work as a GP in the 1970s, nurses were still expected to wear their distinctive overcoats and hats when they left the hospital and they were held in such high regard that, if they hailed a taxi, many cabbies could be relied on to refuse payment at the end of their journey.
These days, the starched linen has been replaced by all-purpose nylon and most patients struggle to tell the difference between nursing grades. A senior nurse looks like a healthcare assistant, or a cleaner.
The Salmon Report in 1967 tried to improve the status of nurses by pushing them into hospital management.
This has had the unwanted effect of taking the most experienced nurses off the wards and trapping them behind desks in administrative roles.
As a result, nurses are no longer seen as ‘Nightingales’, who offer gentle care at the bedside and dispense calm reassurance. It’s a real loss for all of us.
Everyone in the health service deserves society’s respect – but they will not win that by going on strike.
NHS nurses strike action explained
What is happening?
Britain’s nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), asked 300,000 members to vote on strike action. Ballots closed on November 2.
What does the union want?
The union wants nurses to get a pay rise 5 per cent above inflation, which currently sits around 12 per cent. This is far above the Government’s offer of about 4 per cent.
What happens now the ballot is closed?
The RCN will tally the votes per UK nation with the results expected to be announced in the coming days.
What result is needed for nurses to go on strike?
Trade union laws differ per UK nation.
In England and Scotland, 50 per cent of the eligible membership must vote for the ballot to be valid, and at least 40 per cent of votes must be in favour of the action for the result to count.
For Wales, at least 50 per cent of the eligible membership must vote but only a simple majority is needed to determine the result.
Northern Ireland has the least restrictions on strike action ballots, only a simple majority of those who vote is required with no minimum turnout threshold.
When could nurses go on strike?
Northern Ireland requires strike action to take place within one month of the ballot closing, so before December 3.
The law in England, Scotland and Wales states strike action has to be held within six months of the ballot closing, so by the start of May.
Have any dates been announced?
No. It is also unclear if the strike will be held continuously, as in for multiple days in a row, or on certain days spaced throughout the month.
Won’t a strike put patients in danger?
Unlike other staff groups who take strike action, nurses need to maintain a minimum staffing level to keep patients safe.
Therefore, some nurses will be exempt from the strike to provide this minimum level of service.
The exact numbers remaining on the job will be 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 nursing strike is likely to lead to cancellation of hundreds of routine operations.
Similar large-scale strike action by junior doctors in 2016 led to the cancellation of 100,000 patient appointments.
Can nurses be sacked for striking?
No. NHS workers cannot legally be sacked if they participate in official and lawful industrial action.
Will the Government cave to RCN demands?
Unknown. But if the No10 gives in to nurses it will face pressure to provide similar pay rises to other NHS staff groups, with junior doctors, midwives and other health service staff also arguing for inflation busting pay rises.
At a time when state services are being asked to tighten their belts due to financial pressures the Government is likely to argue it can’t afford to pay NHS staff more than it has offered.
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