The leader of Britain’s nurses’ union has accused the health secretary, Steve Barclay, of being a “bullyboy” who is unwilling to negotiate with her because she is a woman representing a largely female workforce.
Pat Cullen also claimed the government was displaying “particularly macho” behaviour towards the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) because she believes it sees nursing as “female work” that it does not value properly.
Tens of thousands of nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to stop work on 15 and 20 December in the profession’s first-ever NHS-wide strike action, causing serious disruption to NHS services including A&E.
In an interview with the Guardian in advance of next week’s strike, the RCN’s general secretary also criticised ministers for portraying nurses as “greedy”.
She warned nurses could keep staging stoppages at hospitals and other places of NHS care for the next six months in their pursuit of a “fair and decent” pay rise, as the RMT union has in its dispute with Britain’s train companies. However, she also suggested the RCN would ditch its demand for a 5% above inflation increase if the health secretary abandoned his refusal to begin meaningful talks.
“The more I think about it … I’m a woman negotiating for a 90% female profession that is trying to operate with a government that’s particularly macho and tends to operate with a bullyboy tactic. Perhaps that’s the reason why we can’t get moving forward. By refusing to negotiate Steve Barclay is ignoring nurses and ignoring me.
“I think there’s an issue here with us being female. I ask myself, would that [refusal to negotiate] be different if it was a 90% male profession and I was a male? I truly believe it would be. I think we’d be treated differently,” said Cullen, whose union represents 500,000 nurses across the UK.
In a direct attack on Rishi Sunak and his government, she added: “And that links back to the value of caring and it being female work. Nurses showed the importance of care during the pandemic, the importance of being with a patient at their real hour of need, the importance of being there to hold their hand and see them leave this world and say: ‘It’s OK, we’ll be here.’ That’s all perceived by those people, by those men, as female jobs, female work, and that they can treat us like that.”
Barclay was treating nurses “with contempt and disrespect”, she said. Unnamed senior NHS managers have told the Health Service Journal that they regard the health secretary as “a real nightmare, vindictive, arrogant, a bully [and] hostile to the NHS”.
Cullen said Barclay’s rejection of pay talks, and Sunak’s plan to bring in new laws restricting trade union members’ right to strike, showed the government’s strategy for dealing with nurses’ pay involved “bullyish tough talking” rather than discussing the reasons for the RCN seeking such a significant salary uplift and then reaching a compromise.
She said she was confident the public would continue to support nurses in their pay claim and said the Cabinet Office minister Nadhim Zahawi’s suggestion the nurses’ strikes would help Vladimir Putin was “disingenuous, disrespectful and bizarre”.
Other NHS personnel including ambulance staff, teachers, university lecturers and Border Force officials are among the many groups of workers who intend to strike over the looming “winter of discontent”.
Barclay has offered all NHS staff in England except for doctors and dentists a rise of at least £1,400 this year. But health unions have rejected that and are instead due to stage a series of strikes during the winter in an attempt to secure a deal equivalent to inflation, which is now 11.1%.
Cullen said nurses could strike until next June if they feel they have to. “I would sincerely hope [Barclay] doesn’t push those nurses on to picket lines for the next six months.”
However, Cullen – a mental health nurse in Belfast – also gave a clear sign that the RCN would drop its 5% above inflation claim if Barclay agreed to talks. The pair did have one face-to-face meeting last month but Barclay declined to talk about anything other than non-pay issues.
“It seems this government won’t negotiate with a nurse. That’s unfortunate. Everything is on the table and negotiations will inevitably involve some give and take on each side. I won’t dig in if they won’t dig in. But they need to come to the table with me,” she said. If talks did happen, she added, “there has to be give and take on both sides and I’ll not be found wanting in that”.
Sunak, Barclay and other ministers’ description of the RCN’s pay demand as “unreasonable and unaffordable” showed they were trying to convince the public that nurses were “greedy”, Cullen said. “They are not greedy people, as this government might want to portray them.” The reality, she said, was that nurses had seen the real-terms value of their pay fall by 20% over the past decade and could work 13- or 14-hour shifts without a break. Some were feeling “humiliated” at having to resort to using food banks and borrowing money from loan sharks and on credit cards to pay their bills, she said.
Cullen said the nurses’ dispute was “a battle for the absolute soul of the NHS, to bring it back from the brink and from falling totally over the precipice”. It was also a litmus test of whether Britain was a fair and decent country that properly rewarded nurses for their work, rather than leaving them to be part of “the working poor”, she added. “What an indictment on any government that people who have carried us right through this pandemic should be treated like that. It’s wrong.”
Asked what would represent victory in the dispute, given how far apart the two sides are and with no ongoing dialogue, she said Barclay entering into pay talks would constitute “the beginning of a victory. But a victory for me will be getting nurses a decent pay rise so that we retain every single one of them in our health service.” The NHS in England has vacancies for almost 50,000 nurses.
A spokesperson for Barclay stressed his respect for nurses and said further talks with Cullen were possible, but did not specify whether that could include pay. “The health and social care secretary has the utmost respect for nurses and is hugely grateful for the dedication of all NHS staff,” the spokesperson said.
“Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN, on how we can make the NHS a better place to work – and have been clear the door remains open for further talks.
“These are extremely challenging times, we have accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS pay review body in full and have given over 1 million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year. This is on top of a 3% pay increase last year when public sector pay was frozen and wider government support with the cost of living.”
A Whitehall source said: “Steve had a constructive discussion with Pat at their meeting last month about a wide range of issues. His door has been open for more talks since then. The RCN should think again before going ahead with strike action. It is time to resume that constructive dialogue on improving working conditions in the NHS and delivering the best possible care for patients.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.