Up to 3 million patients in England could have their surgeries delayed because of the looming NHS-wide strikes by nurses, research shows.
A total of 2.99 million people are waiting to have operations at the dozens of hospitals in England where members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will start striking next month.
Those living in the south-west of England, the north-west and London are most likely to have their care disrupted, according to analysis by the Future Health research group. That is because almost all the acute hospitals in those regions will face industrial action by nurses in pursuit of their 15.1% pay claim and also because they have large numbers of patients waiting to have a joint replacement, cataract removal or other procedure.
“These strikes will be very bad news for patients waiting to have surgery on the NHS, many of whom will now have to have their operation pushed back,” said Richard Sloggett, Future Health’s programme director, who was a government special adviser on health during 2018-19.
In the south-west alone, 619,890 people are on the waiting list for non-urgent hospital treatment. However, RCN members at the main hospitals there – such as those in Plymouth, Bristol, Cornwall and Dorset – were among those who voted to strike in a ballot that could potentially lead to a six-month series of stoppages across the UK until next May.
Similarly, 430,212 people are waiting for planned care in the north-west of England where nurses at most of the main hospitals, such as those in Liverpool but not at Manchester’s main acute NHS trust, plan to strike once the RCN decides when to call its members out for the first time. The union is considering various options for that initial action but one would result in nurses not working for two days in the same week, in what one union official said would be a show of strength to ministers.
Strikes by nurses look inevitable after Rishi Sunak told the RCN on Thursday its plea for a 5% above inflation pay increase this year was “not affordable”.
The strikes could have a particularly heavy impact at several trusts that have especially long waiting lists, such as University Hospitals Birmingham, where more than 159,000 people are waiting to have surgery, and University Hospitals Sussex and Newcastle upon Tyne NHS hospitals trusts, both of which have more than 100,000 people waiting.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the hospitals group the NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders will do all they can to mitigate against the effects of any planned industrial action on their services and patients and will ensure that critical, emergency and urgent services are kept running as a minimum. If changes are made to non-urgent care services, patients will be given as much notice as possible of any changes.”
Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, has urged the health secretary, Steve Barclay, to thrash out a deal with health unions to avoid the disruption strikes will cause. Ministers have offered most NHS staff in England at least £1,400 a year more, a rise that is worth between 4% and 5%.
She said: “We need ministers to sit down with nurses and union leaders urgently to find a way to prevent strikes. Nobody wants to see protracted industrial action over what threatens to be the toughest winter the NHS has ever seen. NHS trust leaders up and down the country get what it’s like for those on the frontline. The government needs to get it too.”
Barclay said: “Our priority is keeping patients safe during any strikes. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”
Other staff groups are likely to go on strike too. Members of the GMB in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already voted to do so and the ballot by Unison – which represents nurses, paramedics and non-clinical staff – is expected to result in a mandate for action.
The Royal College of Midwives has urged its 30,000 members in England and Wales to back strikes in its ballot, which has now begun.