The chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing has reflected on the “tragic day” of strikes held by nurses on Thursday and warned that unless the government agrees to talk about pay, action “will escalate”.
Thousands of members of the RCN took to picket lines across England, Wales and Northern Ireland yesterday in a dispute over pay and working conditions.
“Unfortunately, if this government doesn’t speak to us and doesn’t get into a room, I’m afraid that this will escalate”
A further day of walkouts is planned for Tuesday 20 December.
In this first set of strikes, only half of NHS employers in England where a mandate was secured will see strike action from nurses.
However, the college has previously warned that unless the government enters formal talks on pay, further action across more locations could take place in the new year.
Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time programme last night after a day on the picket lines with fellow nurses, RCN leader Pat Cullen said: “Unfortunately, if this government doesn’t speak to us and doesn’t get into a room, I’m afraid that this will escalate.”
The college has a mandate to organise strikes until early May 2023, meanwhile reports in the BBC suggest new strike dates will be announced before Christmas, with action likely in January.
During the programme, Ms Cullen said the first day of strike action had “been a tragic day for this country and right across the UK”.
“Tragic for nursing. It’s tragic for patients… and it’s tragic for the NHS,” she added.
“It should never have got to this, but it has got to this because of this government.”
The dispute is centred on nurses’ and unions’ anger over the below-inflation pay awards issued this year to NHS staff and connected issues of poor staffing, workplace pressures and patient safety risks.
Ms Cullen had attempted to avert strikes this month when she met with health and social care secretary Steve Barclay. However, he once again insisted pay was not up for discussion.
The RCN is calling for a 5% plus inflation pay increase for NHS nurses – an amount described by the government as unaffordable.
“We have tried very, very hard to sit down with the government and speak with them, talk to them and negotiate on behalf of not just the whole 520,000 nurses that we represent in the RCN, but the 320,000 nurses that gave me the mandate that we have got for this ballot,” Ms Cullen said on Question Time.
“I think every single one of those 320,000 nurses deserve better.”
She recalled conversations she has had with nurses who are struggling to make ends meet because of poor pay.
Some had shown her the food banks they use in the evenings, while others have told her that “when the patients finish their dinners, [they] take what is left because [they] can’t afford to eat”.
Also on the panel was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP for North East Somerset, who said he agreed with Ms Cullen that “it is a tragedy that nurses have gone on strike”.
However, he reiterated the governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had given NHS nurses a £1,400 pay increase for 2022-23, as recommended by the NHS Pay Review Body.
“The pay increase is not huge and is below inflation, but it is what was recommended by an independent pay board,” he said on the BBC programme.
Strike plans for nurses in Scotland are currently on pause amid a renewed offer from the government there.
More coverage of the RCN strikes