‘What a tragic day’: UK nurses strike in bitter pay dispute

LONDON: Britain’s National Health Service nurses staged a strike on Thursday, their first-ever national walkout, as a bitter dispute with the government over pay increases pressure on hospitals already stretched at one of the times the busiest of the year.
An estimated 100,000 nurses will strike across 76 hospitals and health centres, canceling around 70,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries across Britain’s state-funded NHS.
Britain is facing a wave of industrial action this winter, with strikes crippling the rail network and postal service, and airports bracing for Christmas disruption.
Inflation at more than 10%, dragged down by wage offers around 4%, is fueling tensions between unions and employers.
Of all the strikes however, it will be the sight of the nurses on the picket lines that will be the most vivid image for many Britons this winter.
“What a tragic day. It’s a tragic day for nursing, it’s a tragic day for patients, patients in hospitals like this, and it’s a tragic day for people in this society and for our NHS,” Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, told the BBC on a picket line on Thursday.
The widely admired nursing profession will close parts of the NHS, which since its founding in 1948 has developed national treasure status for being free at the point of use, hitting healthcare delivery when it is already stretched in winter and with backlogs at record levels due to COVID delays.
Health Minister Steve Barclay said it was deeply regrettable that the strike was continuing.
“I have worked in government and with doctors outside the public sector to ensure safe staffing levels – but I remain concerned about the risk the strikes pose to patients,” he said.
Barclay said patients should continue to seek emergency medical care and attend appointments unless they have been told not to.
More strikes to come?
Industrial action by nurses on December 15 and 20 is unprecedented in the 106-year history of the British nurses union, but the RCN says it has no choice as workers struggle to make ends meet.
Nurses want a 19% pay rise, arguing they have suffered a decade of cuts in real terms and that low pay means staff shortages and unsafe patient care.
The government refused to discuss wages, which Cullen said raised the prospect of more strikes.
“Every room I go to with the secretary of state, he tells me he can talk about anything but pay,” she said. “What he’s going to do is carry on with days like this.”
Outside St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, Ethnea Vaughan, 50, a practice development nurse from London, said she felt nurses had no choice but to strike, blaming a government that had ignored their concerns for years.
“Nothing changes and I’ve been a nurse for 27 years and all I can see is a steady drop in morale,” she told Reuters.
The Scottish government averted a nurses’ strike by holding pay talks, an outcome the RCN had hoped for in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But the government has said it cannot afford to pay more than the 4-5 per cent offered to nurses, which has been recommended by an independent body, and that further pay rises would be tantamount to taking money away front-line services.
Certain areas of treatment will be exempt from the strike, the MRC said, including chemotherapy, dialysis and intensive care.
Polls before the nurses’ strike showed a majority of Britons backed the action, but once the walkouts are underway politicians will be watching public opinion closely.


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