'We're desperate' - Welsh nurses vote to strike in December over 'insulting' pay rise

  • 'This isn't good enough anymore' - ITV News Senior Correspondent Dean Thomas-Welch spoke to a nurse in Swansea about why she's backing the strike

Nurses in all but one NHS employer in Wales have voted to go on strike for the first time in history, with staff warning of a "desperate situation".

The strike action comes following a dispute over a proposed pay rise - which the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) described as "pitiful and insulting".

The first period of industrial action is expected to take place in December and strikes could run until early May 2023, which will mark six months since members finished voting.

More than 300,000 members were urged by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to vote for strike action in the union’s biggest strike ballot. Credit: ITV Wales

Amy Mainwaring, a clinical nurse specialist at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, told ITV Cymru Wales, she has seen colleagues using food banks and said the situation has become "desperate".

She said: "It is tough, and I understand it is difficult for everyone in the UK at the moment but we're not asking for more than anyone else...we are all deserving of a fair living wage but when you see colleagues using a food bank, that's desperate. That's a desperate situation."

It will be the first time that Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members in Wales have taken part in industrial action and it is the first UK-wide strike action in the RCN's 106-year history.

The results of the ballot come amid a growing threat of strikes across the health service.

The impact on patients and patient safety does play on Ms Mainwaring's mind, but she says nurses have a duty of care to themselves.

"Patient safety is at the heart of what we're trying to keep and what we're trying to protect, as well as our wages and our standard of living," she said.

"It is sad that it's come to this, none of us as nurses or healthcare support workers or porters wanted to get to this point. We've got a duty of care, but that duty of care has to extend to myself. If I don't look after myself and my family, I can't look after you if you come into hospital."

More than 300,000 members of the RCN were balloted over strike action. Credit: PA

Speaking after the ballot result, the director of RCN Wales Helen Whyley said decisive action was vital to protect nurses and their patients.

“I have visited hospitals and workplaces throughout Wales. I have heard first hand of nurses who are struggling to pay their household bills, of the extra hours they have worked for free to subsidise the NHS, the shifts they have gone without any breaks," she said.

"They have told me of their constant worry and despair for the safety of their patients due to short staffing.  

“There is currently no escape for staff, worry and guilt for their patients at work, worry and guilt for their families at home. This is not sustainable. Many have told me that they cannot continue in their beloved profession without change. 

“The message is loud and clear. Enough is enough. It is time to take decisive action against a spiralling workforce crisis that is putting patients’ lives in danger and has no regard for nursing staff wellbeing.” 

Minimum staffing levels will be adhered to when nurses strike. Credit: PA

How did we get here?

The union decided to ballot members on strike action after the Welsh Government announced a pay award of £1,400 for all NHS pay bands for 2022-2023, the equivalent of 4%.

The pay award would see a consolidated uplift to full-time equivalent salaries, enhanced for the top of Band 6 and all points of Band 7.

RCN Cymru called the pay rise "pitiful and insulting" and said it was equal to a pay cut in real terms, which could leave an experienced nurse over £1,000 worse off.

The union instead called for a fully funded pay rise for nursing staff of 5% above inflation.

Speaking in July, the Health Minister said her decision was taken in line with the recommendation of the NHS Pay Review Body, stating there are limitations to how much money the Welsh Government has to distribute.

Eluned Morgan MS said: "I hope this pay award goes some way to recognise their hard work but without additional funding from the UK Government, there are inevitably limits to how far we can go in Wales. We continue to press them to pass on the full funding necessary for fair pay rises for public sector workers."

According to the RCN, there are currently 3000 vacancies in Wales up from 1719 in 2021.

In 2021/22, NHS Wales spent £133.4 million on agency nursing, an increase of 41% on the previous year. The union argues this would pay for the salaries of 4,930 newly qualified nurses. 

Which NHS employers in Wales are affected?

RCN Wales says strike action will be carried out legally and safely at all times, and plans and a timeline for strike action will be announced soon.

In Wales, at least half of RCN members within an employer must vote, with the majority in favour of strike action to reach a mandate.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board was the only NHS employer in Wales to fall below the threshold.

NHS employers who met the threshold include:  

  • Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board 

  • Cardiff and Vale University Health Board 

  • Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board 

  • Digital Health and Care Wales 

  • Health Education and Improvement Wales 

  • Hywel Dda University Health Board 

  • NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership 

  • Powys Teaching Local Health Board 

  • Public Health Wales 

  • Swansea Bay University Health Board 

  • Velindre University NHS Trust 

  • Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust 

What has the reaction been?

After the announcement of strike action, a Welsh Government spokesperson said they will work on contingency plans to ensure public safety.

“We recognise why so many nurses voted the way they did and we agree nurses should be fairly rewarded for their important work," the spokesman said.

“We also recognise the anger and disappointment many public sector workers are feeling at the moment. There are however limits to how far we can go to address these concerns in Wales without additional funding from the UK Government.

“Following the ballot result, we will work with NHS organisations and health boards on their contingency plans. The public should be assured that arrangements will be made with RCN Wales to ensure there will always be a safe level of staffing, with life-saving and life-maintaining care being provided during any industrial action.”

In the Senedd, the Health Minister responding to the announcement said additional funding was needed from the UK Government.

The Welsh Conservative, Shadow Health Minister, Russell George MS said it was highly regrettable that nurses have decided to strike.

“This will only compound the problems facing the UK’s worst-run NHS as, under Labour, Wales has the longest treatment waiting lists, A&E waiting times, and ambulance response times in the country.

“I would stress that we cannot make the NHS permanently dependent on agency nurses but, in Labour-run Wales, it is already the case, with nurse vacancies going up by a thousand in just the last year, with £134m spent on agency workers.

“I hope the Minister finally engages with the Royal College of Nursing to bring this dispute to an end as swiftly as possible – it is disgraceful that she has avoided doing this so far to the detriment of patients and staff across Wales.”

Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru's spokesperson for health and care, Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said the party stands with the RCN and its members.

"We can’t expect the kind of ongoing commitment that nurses give to their work and to patients, without ensuring they’re properly and fairly rewarded.

“No-one wants industrial action if there was any other option – and that includes the nurses themselves, more than anyone – but the fact the ballot took place in the first place indicates the strength of feeling. Plaid Cymru stands with the RCN and their members as they fight for the pay, working conditions and recognition they deserve.”