Government confirms legal action over nurses' strikes

The government has announced a bid to stop the nurses' strike - asking a court to decide whether the latest planned walkout is 'unlawful', ITV News' Romilly Weeks reports

The government has announced it will take legal action against the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), over its planned 48-hour strike this weekend.

It comes after RCN members declined the government's NHS pay offer ten days ago, leading the nursing union to announce new strike action and seek fresh negotiations.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has written to RCN leaders claiming their plans for industrial action "go beyond the mandate you secured from your members."

In a statement released on Twitter on Monday evening, Mr Barclay said he had “no choice but to proceed with legal action” against the RCN.

He said: “Following a request from NHS Employers I am regretfully applying to the High Court to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s planned strike action on May 2 unlawful.

“Despite attempts by my officials to resolve the situation with the RCN over the weekend, I have been left with no choice but to proceed with legal action.

“I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law – but the government cannot stand by and let unlawful strike action go ahead nor ignore the request of NHS Employers.

“We must also protect nurses by ensuring they are not asked to take part in an unlawful strike.”

The government will ask the court to stop any strike action on May 2 but will not challenge the entire 48-hour strike planned for the weekend.

If the court sides with the government's case, deeming the strikes unlawful, RCN bosses have said they will let members know as soon as possible if plans to strike will be amended.

It comes during a long-running dispute between the government and NHS nursing staff over pay and conditions.

RCN General Secretary & Chief Executive Pat Cullen described the situation as “nakedly political” and “frightening for democracy”. 

The RCN is also preparing to ballot members next month on a second six-month strike mandate from June to December 2023.

In an email to RCN members, Ms Cullen said: “Tonight, the threat sadly became a reality. We told the government that this is wrong and indefensible. The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them – including in court. 

“Before the end of the week, the court will decide whether to support this government’s use of draconian anti-Trade Union legislation."

She added: “If the government succeeds in silencing members like you and convinces the court to stop part of our strike, then we’ll have no choice but to cut it short. Our strike action has always been safe and legal. We would never ask our members to do anything unsafe or against your professional code.

“It’s so wrong for the government to use taxpayers' money to drag our profession through the courts. We’re determined to show that the nursing profession is strong and determined, and defend our members' right to strike.”

She accused the government of treating nurses “as criminals” by “dragging them through the courts” despite their efforts on the front line of the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

“How low can a government stoop?” she asked.

Ms Cullen has urged ministers to “calm this down” and resume negotiations after an RCN ballot rejected a 5% pay offer.

What are the current strike plans?

RCN members working on the NHS in England at workplaces have been preparing to take industrial action.

Plans are in place for staff to walk out from 8pm or the start of the night shift on April 30 until 8pm or the start of the night shift on May 2.

NHS employers had written to Mr Barclay, asking him to check the legality of the action because the strike mandate runs out in early May.

Speaking last week, Mr Barclay said: "Following a request from NHS Employers I have regretfully provided notice of my intent to pursue legal action to ask the courts to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s upcoming strike action planned for April 30 to May 2 to be unlawful.

Pat Cullen. Credit: PA

"The government firmly believes in the right to strike but it is vital that any industrial action is lawful and I have no choice but to take action.

"Strike action with no national exemptions agreed, including for emergency and cancer care, will also put patient safety at risk.

"This legal action also seeks to protect nurses who could otherwise be asked to take part in unlawful activity that could in turn put their professional registration at risk and would breach the requirements set out in the nursing code of conduct."

In response, Ms Cullen said: "This is nakedly political. Nurses will not be gagged in this way by a bullying government.

"We are clear that court arguments should only relate to 2nd May and not the 30th April and 1st May.

"The government is now desperate to silence nurses rather than address this properly. We want to be in the negotiating room, not the courtroom."

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