Nurses with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the U.K. have voted to go on strike just before Christmas over low pay. It is considered the largest strike in the history of the National Health Service and will affect non-urgent but not emergency care.
The RCN sent ballots to its 300,000 members and recommended that they vote to authorize the strike. Ballots are still being counted, but union representatives said the strike will go forward now that “large swathes of the country” had voted for industrial action. However, some hospitals and facilities at the local level may not be involved if nurses voted not to participate.
Faced with record high inflation, nurses with the RCN said their pay has fallen around 20% in real terms since 2010. They originally called for a 5% raise plus inflation, which comes to about 15%. But the government only agreed to increase pay by just 4%.
The current starting salary for nurses in England is just above £27,000, just over $31,000. It goes up to nearly £55,000, or $63,000, for the most senior nurses.
The RCN says the government has failed to address a growing workforce crisis and that the “exploitation of nursing staff cannot be tolerated any longer.”
A recent survey from the Nuffield Trust found that 40,365 nurses, roughly one in nine, quit the NHS from 2021 to 2022. Many nurses have had to pick up second jobs to make ends meet as prices continue to rise.
The NHS has yet to fill over 46,000 vacancies across the nursing sector.
“Patients are at great risk when there aren’t enough nurses. Huge numbers of staff – both experienced and newer recruits – are deciding they cannot see a future in a nursing profession that is not valued nor treated fairly,” said Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary and chief executive.
“Our strike action will be as much for patients as it is for nurses – we have their support in doing this. As we begin action, politicians in every part of the UK will be challenged to back their nursing staff and understand the strength of public support.”
Patients in the U.K. are already facing long wait times, and the strike will only extend these delays.
It’s not clear how the dispute will be resolved. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is currently facing a budget deficit of £50 billion.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden addressed these concerns over the weekend. He said the government has a “well-oiled” contingency plan in place in case of a national nursing strike, “but of course there would be an impact as a result of a strike like that,” he said.
“I would continue to urge nurses and others to resist going out on strike even if they have voted to do so”, he added.
The NHS recently sent a letter regarding the strike to trusts across the country.
“The NHS’s task now is to be prepared for any potential industrial action so there is minimal disruption to patient care and emergency services can continue to operate as normal,” it said.