UK nurses stage second strike for inflation-busting pay

Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing demand better pay to make up for years of real-terms salary cuts.

United Kingdom nurses have staged a second unprecedented strike amid an increasingly acrimonious fight with the government for better wages.

Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are holding the latest one-day stoppage on Tuesday after walking out last Thursday for the first time in the trade union’s 106-year history.

They are demanding an inflation-busting pay increase to make up for years of real-terms salary cuts, but the government insists recession-hit Britain cannot afford anything above a 4-5 percent rise.

“We need more money, we need more staff, we need patient safety,” said Lucy Savage, 21, on a picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in the northwestern city of Liverpool.

“We’re overworked and underpaid, the NHS [National Health Service] is just a shambles.”

Suni George, 45, said his pay had hardly changed in his 17 years of working as a nurse.

“We get a lot of tax so even when the annual income looks like it’s gone up, we don’t have more money,” he said outside the same hospital.

Striking NHS nurses picket outside Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds
Striking NHS nurses picket outside Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds [Adam Vaughan/EPA]

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said the strike was “bound to have an effect on the healthcare provision in the NHS”.

“That is, of course, the point of the strike – to cause disruption,” Hull said.

“And there will be a second day of disruption with nurses joining picket lines across England, Wales and Northern Ireland,” he added.

“It is historic – this sequence of nurses strikes. They are the most extensive in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing and indeed in the history of the NHS itself – which many in the picket line say has been the subject of funding cuts and underfunding for years … as have the nurses themselves who say they have lost up to 20 percent in real terms pay with wages failing to keep with inflation.”

Dave Carr, a nurse and member of the RCN, said the industrial action was a “last resort” attempt to get the government to change tack.

“We have been forced into a position where we can no longer deliver the [proper] level of care to our patients because of a shortage of staff,” Carr told Al Jazeera.

“There are 47,000 vacancies for nursing positions in the NHS,” he added, noting the health service was unable to recruit and retain people because of low salaries that had been outpaced by inflation.

“We don’t want to be on strike but this is our last resort and the only way we feel that we can make the government see sense about its catastrophic policies in the NHS.”

The Royal College of Nursing on strike
Pat Cullen, head of the Royal College of Nursing union, poses with NHS nurses during a strike in London on December 15 [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The striking nurses are just some of numerous UK public and private sector workers taking industrial action over pay and working conditions, as they grapple with a cost-of-living crisis worsened by decades-high inflation.

The UK consumer prices index is currently running at nearly 11 percent.

Ambulance workers, including paramedics and call handlers, are set to strike on Wednesday.

A second such walkout is scheduled for December 28, while others, including postal, railway and Border Force staff, are staging stoppages over the Christmas period.

The RCN has criticised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government for refusing to discuss pay as part of stalled negotiations.

RCN chief Pat Cullen said nurses would take wider industrial action next month if the dispute was not resolved.

“If this government keeps giving our nursing staff the cold shoulder as they have to date then, it’s really unfortunate, that come January, we will see more hospitals being involved and striking and that means more nursing staff involved,” she said.

The union has also accused health secretary Steve Barclay of adopting a “macho” negotiating style during brief meetings held recently.

“The RCN’s demands are unaffordable during these challenging times and would take money away from front-line services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic,” Barclay said on Monday.

He and other ministers have reiterated that they can only accept the recommendations of an independent pay review body.

The government-appointed body, comprised of economists and human resources experts, urged hiking healthcare sector pay at least £1,400 ($1,740) on top of a 3.0 percent increase last year.

But critics argue it is constrained by government-imposed budget limits and that its assessment, published in July, predates current higher inflation rates.

Ministers plan to draft in 750 military personnel to drive ambulances and perform logistics roles to mitigate the effect of the strikes.

Polls indicate the majority of people support the nurses’ stance, and to a lesser extent, other workers walking out.

YouGov polling during December reported by The Sunday Times showed nearly two-thirds back the nurses, while half are supportive of ambulance staff stoppages.

However, after a year of strikes on the railways, only 37 percent backed its workers amid their continuing dispute over pay and conditions.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies