Ministers accused of being 'on strike' amid biggest ever NHS walkouts

NHS strikes in England look set to continue as the rest of the UK is poised to bring them to an end, Emily Morgan reports

Ministers have been accused of "being on strike" as NHS strikes in England look set to continue despite signs of deals being reached in Scotland and Wales.

The service saw a “hugely disrupted day” after tens of thousands of workers in England took part in the industrial action, in the UK's biggest ever health strike.

Union leaders have implored ministers to act to prevent further strike action, but ministers in England have indicated that they will not budge on one of the main points of contention – pay for 2022/23.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Business Secretary Grant Shapps of being "missing in action".

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: "No Health Secretary and no Business Secretary were there to answer urgent questions in Parliament today – and no response from the prime minister after I wrote to him this weekend."

“People may wonder if the government is also on strike."

Pressure is mounting for the PM to resolve the dispute in England, given health strikes in Wales were paused recently following an improved pay offer - and Scottish walkouts were put on hold last month to allow further negotiations.

Workers on the picket line outside St Mary's Hospital, London Credit: PA

There have been several discussions held by the government aimed at resolving strikes, with ministers saying they want to "work constructively" with unions - but the RCN has accused the state of "punishing" nurses.

Health is a devolved area of policy, meaning governments in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England each have the final say domestically over pay offers.

Asked why strikes had been averted in Wales and Scotland, Ms Cullen said: "Quite simply not here because there hasn't been one single extra brown penny put on the table for the nurses in England."

She added: “We are in a situation today where this government has chosen to punish the nurses of England instead of getting round a table and talking to me about pay in the same way as they’ve done in Wales and Scotland.”

Ms Cullen said Mr Sunak could end strikes in England by agreeing to discuss pay but warned that nurses will "continue to do this for as long as it takes".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Monday's strikes were a "badge of shame" for the government as he urged Mr Sunak to reopen pay talks.

"Before Christmas, the nurses made clear that if the government was to get in the room and talk to them about pay, they wouldn’t be on strike," he told broadcasters.

“I think many people listening to this will be absolutely flabbergasted that the government is still sitting this one out, not showing any leadership in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, making the situation much worse than it otherwise would be.”

The government is refusing to negotiate this year's pay - which unions want improving and backdating to April 2022, when the initial offer was made.

Ministers say meeting the unions' demands would keep inflation higher for longer and insist they can only negotiate the forthcoming year's pay.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, asked what is Mr Sunak’s plan for ending the strikes, said: “We want to keep discussing how we can find a path forward with the unions.

“Our long-standing position is that above-inflation pay rises are not acceptable, given the impact it would have on taxpayers and the risk of increasing inflationary pressures.

“But we do want to find a path forward. We think the right way to do that is to talk about this year’s (2023/24) pay offer prior to evidence being submitted to the pay review body.”

NHS nurses have already received a pay rise of around 4% but the RCN says that is effectively a pay cut due to the soaring rate of inflation and is asking for 19% in order to mitigate the cost-of-living crisis.

Ms Cullen has indicated she would meet the government halfway on that and even suggested she would call off planned strikes if England was able to match the improved offer in Wales, which was an additional 3%.

Monday’s industrial action marks the first time paramedics and nurses have staged stoppages on the same day during the current wave of disputes convulsing public services.

It prompted NHS Providers – which represents trusts – to urge the public to use emergency services “wisely” as it warned the whole service was approaching a “crunch point”.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: “What we previously had with industrial action has been, for example community nursing staff being able to plug the gaps left when ambulance staff are out on strike, but obviously with nurses and ambulances out today, that’s going to be incredibly difficult."

She added: “Of course emergency departments will be open providing that care when people are in extreme crisis, but what what they won’t be getting through is any kind of backlog recovery – so if people are phoning up for usual appointments, if they are seeking to gain ongoing care, they won’t have access to that."

Striking ambulance crews in January Credit: PA

She said the way to end the strikes is if the government comes to the table to discuss pay for 2022/23.

She added: "That’s how it needs to end and I think that we need to recognise that NHS staff have faced soaring costs, cost of living has gone up, inflation has gone up, and the settlement from this year’s pay review body was made at a time when inflation wasn’t at the levels it’s at at the moment.

"So I think it’s really important that we focus on getting a deal for this year, as well as then thinking about what next year’s pay deal looks like.”

Ambulance crews and call handlers will return to work on Tuesday but are then due to walk out again on Friday.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he wants to find a fair deal with junior doctors that doesn’t affect efforts to tackle inflation. Credit: PA

Over the weekend, Business Secretary Grant Shapps sparked anger among the ambulance unions when he accused them of putting patient lives at risk by refusing to inform employers of details of their strike action.

NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said they understood why so many of their staff had reached a “tipping point” as he urged ministers to sit down with unions to thrash out a settlement.

He said 88,000 appointments had been already been cancelled as a result of the current industrial action, hitting patients hard.

“We’re facing a crunch point. Monday’s coordinated walkout by nurses and ambulance workers could see the worst disruption yet for the NHS,” he said.

“We face a very real risk that tens of thousands more patients will have their care disrupted in the coming days by this double whammy of strikes, especially as they’re coming right after a weekend when we know demand for care tends to build up.”

Sir Julian said NHS leaders would do everything possible to ensure safe care and to minimise disruption for patients, and called on the public to think carefully before accessing services.

“It’s vital that in the event of an emergency, people continue to call 999,” he said.

“But given the severe disruption we’re expecting, we’re asking the public to use services wisely and to think about whether other health issues could be more appropriately dealt with via the NHS 111 website, community pharmacists or their GP.”

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