Nurses are striking “as much for patients as for ourselves”, the head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has raged, as the NHS braces to be hit by a huge bout of industrial action. Tens of thousands of nurses are set to walk out on Thursday after last-gasp talks with the Government over the strikes collapsed. A second day of strike action will follow next Tuesday. RCN Chief Executive and General Secretary Pat Cullen said the strikes would go ahead after Health Secretary Steve Barclay refused to discuss pay. She also furiously accused ministers of “belligerence”.
The Government has insisted it will continue to engage on non-pay related issues but has refused to cave to demands from the RCN of a pay rise for nurses of five percent above the current rate of inflation.
It now means thousands of appointments will likely be cancelled in the next few days, with patients warned to expect a bank holiday-level of service in hospitals during the strikes.
Speaking before the latest round of failed talks, Ms Cullen told Express.co.uk: “Nursing staff have suffered a decade of real terms pay cuts and there are now record numbers of nurse vacancies in the NHS.
“They have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.
“We are striking as much for patients as for ourselves. Workforce shortages and low pay have made care unsafe and we won’t stand by while our patients suffer.”
She added: “No nurse wants to strike, but the Government’s refusal to tackle the workforce crisis and low pay has left us with no choice.
“With 47,000 nurse vacancies in England’s NHS alone, a pay rise for nurses isn’t just about fair pay – it’s about retaining and recruiting enough nurses to safely care for patients. Nursing staff are standing up for patients when we do this. The public knows it and that’s why they are supporting us.”
Ms Cullen claimed there currently “aren’t enough nurses to keep people safe” and the dispute with the Government “is as much about patient safety as it is about pay”.
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She accused ministers of “pushing nursing staff to the last resort of taking strike action” by refusing to take part in formal negotiations over increased pay.
When asked what impact the upcoming nurses’ strikes would have on patient appointments, emergency treatments and hospitals, the RCN boss replied: “Where life is in danger, care will of course be provided and the nurse will be there.
“But patients are already at risk and that’s why we are doing this. There aren’t enough nurses to keep people safe and our dispute is as much about patient safety as it is about pay – ‘patient safety’ was on every ballot paper and will be key to negotiations.
“It is unacceptable that the Government are choosing to ignore the voice of nursing and push nursing staff to the last resort of taking strike action, rather than entering into formal negotiations with the RCN about fair pay which would tackle the nursing workforce crisis.”
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Following the breakdown in talks on Monday night, Ms Cullen a said in a statement: “The Government was true to its word – they would not talk to me about pay. I needed to come out of this meeting with something serious to show nurses why they should not strike this week. Regrettably, they are not getting an extra penny.
“Ministers had too little to say and I had to speak at length about the unprecedented strength of feeling in the profession. I expressed my deep disappointment at the belligerence – they have closed their books and walked away.”
Mr Barclay has been under increasing pressure after strikes by ambulance staff and some NHS workers in Scotland were called off after the members of two unions voted to accept the Scottish Government’s recent pay deal. But the Health Secretary is standing firm on the independent pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 pay rise for nurses.
The Department of Health and Social Care insisted he “again listened to the RCN’s position on pay and reiterated the Government has agreed to the recommendations of the independent pay review body”.
A spokesman said: “He said that any further pay increase would mean taking money away from frontline services and reducing the 7.2 million elective backlog. Mr Barclay said he would continue to engage with the RCN as we move into the pay review process for next year and on non-pay related issues.”
Earlier on Monday, the Health Secretary claimed giving nurses a pay rise would mean taking money away from funding for operations. He said seven million people are waiting for an operation “and it’s important we prioritise our funding to patients to clear those operation backlogs”.
Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast: “I don’t want to be taking money away from clearing the backlog, which is what we would have to do, we’d have to take money away from patients waiting for operations to then fund additional pay.
“And if everyone on the public sector were to get an increase in line with inflation, that would be costing £28 billion at a time when the Government has to get inflation under control, because that is the biggest factor in terms of people’s cost of living.
“So it’s right we have a balanced process. That is what an independent pay review body does.”