The nursing profession has taken centre stage this week; in fact it has well and truly charged onto it and grabbed the microphone. Thousands of nurses across the UK now have a mandate to take strike action over NHS pay, with more likely to join them in the coming weeks.
Royal College of Nursing members have delivered an undeniably strong message to those in government, as have members of the GMB in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As a result, RCN members working for NHS employers in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and many in England could well be taking to the picket lines before Christmas.
I foresee they will soon be joined by members from a range of other unions in having a similar mandate. We now await further ballot results later this month from Unison, Unite, the GMB and the Royal College of Midwives across the country.
There has rightly been much excitement about the RCN’s ballot result – the first time in its 106-year history that members from across the UK have voted for strike action.
RCN members in Northern Ireland went on strike in 2019 and nurses from most other health unions, except the RCN, did so there and in England during 2014; in both cases over pay and in both cases successfully.
However, this feels like a significant moment and that we have reached a tipping point. The history books show that health professionals rarely go on strike in Britain and it is not a step they take at all lightly.
While nurses will have thought long and hard about the decision, many more than ever before have decided that enough is enough and that the only way to achieve political leverage on pay and workforce shortages is to vote for a strike.
Yes, there was a bit of a false start with speculation – or possibly a leak – about the RCN result in the Sunday papers, several days of delays with the official announcement, which were followed again on Wednesday by concerns from members that they found out the result after the media. All of which ratcheted up the tension.
“The voice of the health service workforce is growing louder and louder, and it is not a happy one”
There have also been questions and disappointment about why voting at some trusts and employers – mostly in England – failed to reach the required threshold to gain a mandate. But the overarching message is that RCN members have used their voice to shout loudly for a better pay rise.
At the same time, the naysayers also started, of course. Some sections of the media have begun nudging at the guilt-laden question of patient safety.
I have already been asked in several interviews when the public’s patience will ‘run out’ with striking nurses; interesting given that no action has yet begun and most opinion polls suggest that public support is strong.
Returning health secretary Steve Barclay responded to the ballot result by noting his disappointment and saying: “Regrettably, this action will mean some patients will have their treatment delayed.” I think it’s fair to say that it is in his power to prevent those delays, should he choose to!
According to Mr Barclay – who signed off the latest pay offer while he was briefly in office earlier in the year – his “door is open” to talks with the RCN. However, this door was previously shut by all accounts, and it has taken the ballot result and the real prospect of action to force it ajar.
RCN leaders have already taken Mr Barclay at his word and met with him on Thursday, in what the college described as a “cordial introduction”. That either side had seemingly not spoken before is a concern, given the consistent and growing warnings given to government this year.
While his door may be metaphorically open, how open Mr Barclay himself is to negotiation is another thing. The college has set its sights on an inflation plus 5% pay rise, which currently works out at 17%.
In contrast, the present offer in England and Wales represents merely 4-5% of that and the RCN recently rejected a new 8% offer from the Scotland government. It doesn’t take a mathematician to reveal that there is a bit of a difference between the two.
However, an initial meeting still represents a step in the right direction. What happens next is key, as there will be a short period of time where action can be averted if serious negotiation is entered into in the right spirit. The alternative is a long and potentially painful dispute over the winter.
This week also feels like only the beginning. It seems highly likely that the other unions will also gain a mandate for action for their nurse and midwife members plus a range of other NHS staff. The voice of the health service workforce is growing louder and louder, and it is not a happy one.
Steve Ford, editor, Nursing Times