Nurses announce strike dates - prompting fears elderly could be stuck in hospital for Christmas

Nurse
Nurse

The first national strikes by nurses could see thousands more elderly patients stuck in hospital for Christmas, experts have warned.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will stage the first-ever national walkout on December 15 and 20 after ministers said demands for a 19 per cent pay rise were “not affordable”.

The action - likely to involve around half of hospitals - could see 30,000 operations and hundreds of thousands of outpatient appointments postponed.

The union has promised to protect urgent and emergency care, with action restricted to other services.

But NHS sources said A&E departments were braced for an influx of extra patients, with nurses working at NHS 111 centres among those expected to down tools.

One warned that the run-up to Christmas carries particular risks.

The date of the first strike - sandwiched between a series of RMT train strikes - means it is likely to be the peak time for office Christmas parties, adding to the strain on A&E departments.

Bed pressures normally rise during December until a week before Christmas when the number of patients falls by around 10,000 amid desperate efforts to get patients home.

The absence of thousands of nurses at “crunch points” could mean thousands more patients remain stuck in hospital for want of help to discharge them.

‘Bank holiday’ level of service

The union is expected to commit to delivering a “bank holiday” level of service during the strike.

While urgent and emergency care will be protected, services like chemotherapy and dialysis are cancelled, along with swathes of planned surgery.

One NHS source said: “The details will be agreed between trusts and unions, but we are expecting most elective care to be stopped at the hospitals which voted in favour.

“Every attempt will be made to manage the risks, but it’s inevitable that more people will be left in pain and discomfort, and it will be harder to transfer elderly people out of hospital.”

It comes as a record 7.1 million people are on waiting lists.

In the week ending November 20, more than a quarter of patients were left stranded outside hospitals, NHS data show.

The RCN said it was calling strikes after the UK Government turned down its offer of formal, detailed negotiations as an alternative to industrial action.

The strikes will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The RCN said it will announce which particular NHS employers be striking next week when formal notifications are submitted. In Scotland, the RCN has paused announcing strike action after the government there reopened NHS pay negotiations.

Earlier this month, the RCN announced that nursing staff at the majority of NHS employers across the UK had voted to take strike action over pay and patient safety.

‘Nurses worse off by 20 per cent in real terms’

The RCN said that despite a pay rise of around £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses are worse off by 20 per cent in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.

Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said: “Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time.

“My offer of formal negotiations was declined and, instead, ministers have chosen strike action. They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute.

“Nursing staff 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.”

Other health unions are also balloting workers for industrial action. On Thursday night GMB Scotland announced the suspension of strikes due to start next week while it consults with its members over a new pay offer from the Scottish government.

Midwives and physiotherapists are also voting on strikes, while a ballot of junior doctors opens in the new year.

Steve Barclay, Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “I am hugely grateful for the hard work and dedication of nurses and deeply regret some union members will be taking industrial action.

“These are challenging times for everyone and the economic circumstances mean the RCN’s demands, which on current figures are a 19.2 per cent pay rise, costing £10 billion a year, are not affordable.

“We have prioritised the NHS with an extra £6.6 billion, on top of previous record funding, and accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body to give nurses a fair pay rise of at least £1,400 this year. This means a newly qualified nurse will typically earn over £31,000 a year – with more senior nurses earning much more than that – they will also receive a pension contribution worth 20 per cent of their salary.

“Our priority is keeping patients safe. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”

NHS Confederation vows to prioritise patient safety

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders understand this may be an uncertain time for many people, including those who routinely rely on the NHS, and that these strikes are coming ahead of what tends to be the busiest time of the year for the service.

“The expectation remains that as a minimum, urgent, emergency and critical care services will continue on strike days and should there be temporary changes to non-urgent aspects of care, such as check-ups and planned procedures, the NHS will make sure this is communicated in advance to patients, prioritising their safety at all times.”

Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth is the Health Secretary refusing to negotiate with nurses? Patients already can’t get treated on time, strike action is the last thing they need, yet the Government is letting this happen. Patients will never forgive the Conservatives for this negligence.”

Meanwhile, senior GPs at the British Medical Association on Thursday urged colleagues to become “activists” to build support for industrial action by GPs. Dr Kieran Shannon made the call at a conference of Local Medical Committees, which on Thursday voted to cut GP core opening hours to 9am to 5pm.

GPs said expecting their practices to open from 8am to 6.30pm was discriminatory against those who wished to have families, which due to a “still-patriarchal” society mostly affected women.