NHS cancer care to be seriously disrupted by nurses’ strike action

Royal College of Nursing finalising areas to be affected, leaving patients in England and Wales unable to receive some treatments

Cancer care will be disrupted, leaving patients unable to receive some treatments, when the first of a planned series of nurses’ strikes starts next month.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is close to finalising which areas of cancer services will be affected and which will be protected when nurses take strike action on 15 and 20 December, the first in the union’s 106-year history.

Cancer care involves many types of procedures, including diagnostic tests such as scans and X-rays, sessions of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and emergency surgery to remove tumours.

RCN members have voted to strike in most hospitals and other providers of NHS care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on those days in what union sources say is a show of strength to ministers over their claim for a pay rise of 5% above inflation.

Senior sources said the strike action was expected to last for 12 hours on both days – most likely running between 8am and 8pm.

The unprecedented work stoppage will seriously disrupt care and is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.

Pat Cullen, the RCN general secretary, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday that “services such as oncology will be derogated or exempt from any strike action” but added that it was too soon to specify whether services such as scans and other checks would stop or proceed.

Asked about colonoscopies, a diagnostic test used to detect bowel cancer, Cullen said: “All of the detail is being worked through.”

But in an apparent admission that some cancer care would be suspended on strike days, she added: “Those services that are not considered life-preserving or emergency services will not be derogated. Those that do fall into those particular descriptions will be derogated.”

The RCN has almost finished drawing up a detailed list of which services across the full range of NHS medical care will be affected and which will not. It is due to finalise that list early next week before meetings at which it will brief NHS bodies in each of the three countries.

Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing
Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing: ‘Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels.’ Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

The RCN said it had confirmed the dates after the UK government turned down its offer of formal, detailed negotiations as an alternative to strike action.

“Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time,” said Cullen. “My offer of formal negotiations was declined and instead ministers have chosen strike action.

“They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute. Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”

The strikes are taking place after a series of individual ballots were held at NHS trusts and boards, rather than one national ballot.

At more than 40% of England’s hospitals, mental health and community services, nurses will not be entitled to strike because the turnout was too low in those ballots. Action can happen, however, at all of Northern Ireland’s health boards and all but one in Wales.

Cullen said the UK government had chosen strikes over listening to nursing staff, adding: “If you turn your back on nurses, you turn your back on patients.”

She said she did not recognise figures put forward by the health secretary suggesting the pay demands from the RCN amounted to a 19.2% pay rise costing £10bn a year.

“If [the health secretary Steve] Barclay wishes to meet with me, get round the table and stop the spin and start to speak, he can avert these strikes,” she said. “But my door is wide open night and day. I will make myself available, as will my team on behalf of our nursing staff.”

The RCN said that despite a pay rise of about £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses were worse off by 20% in real terms owing to successive below-inflation awards since 2010. It said the economic argument for paying nursing staff fairly was clear when billions of pounds were being spent on agency staff to plug workforce gaps.

It said that in the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK had left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, with poor pay contributing to staff shortages across the country, which it said were affecting patient safety. There are 47,000 unfilled NHS registered nurse posts in England alone.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth is the health secretary refusing to negotiate with nurses? Patients already can’t get treated on time. Strike action is the last thing they need, yet the government is letting this happen. Patients will never forgive the Conservatives for this negligence.”

Barclay said he was “hugely grateful” for the hard work of nurses and he deeply regretted the strike action. However, he refused to open formal talks and described the RCN’s demands as “not affordable”.

“Our priority is keeping patients safe,” he said. “The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”

Contributors

Denis Campbell, Andrew Gregory and Jamie Grierson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nurses to strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland after talks fail
Royal College of Nursing leader criticises ‘belligerence’ in meeting with Steve Barclay at which ministers refused to discuss pay

Kiran Stacey, Aubrey Allegretti, Jessica Elgot and Dan Sabbagh

12, Dec, 2022 @11:06 PM

Article image
Nurses’ union leader accuses Steve Barclay of ‘bullyboy’ tactics
Exclusive: Pat Cullen says health secretary is unwilling to negotiate with a woman acting for a largely female workforce

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

09, Dec, 2022 @6:22 PM

Article image
Nurses’ strike could delay surgery for up to 3m people in England
Those living in south-west, north-west and London most likely to have care disrupted, research suggests

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

11, Nov, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Revealed: cabinet split over NHS pay disputes piles pressure on Sunak
Health secretary Steve Barclay urges unions to lobby PM over improved pay offer for striking nurses and ambulance workers

Toby Helm Political editor

14, Jan, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
Why are nurses striking and how will it affect hospital care?
Key questions answered as nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland stage first national strikes

PA Media

15, Dec, 2022 @8:44 AM

Article image
Barclay expected to urge fresh talks aimed at ending health strikes
RCN says talks must take place this week or more strikes will be tabled for new year, as ambulance staff prepare to walk out

Jessica Elgot and Andrew Gregory

18, Dec, 2022 @8:30 PM

Article image
Former Tory ministers join calls for Sunak to negotiate with nurses
After first day of strike, NHS leaders and former pay review boss implore PM and Steve Barclay to review offer

Denis Campbell and Aubrey Allegretti

15, Dec, 2022 @8:06 PM

Article image
NHS strikes escalate with same-day action by nurses and ambulance staff
First joint strike action on 6 February set to seriously affect hospitals and services in England and Wales

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

18, Jan, 2023 @7:44 PM

Article image
NHS unions say plans for 2% pay rise next year could mean more strikes
Ministers have asked NHS pay review body to cap increase for 2023-24, below predictions for inflation

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

01, Jan, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
Scottish health workers threaten strikes after rejecting pay offer
Sturgeon under pressure to resume talks after nurses and midwives join paramedics in rejection of ‘best and final’ offer

Severin Carrell and Denis Campbell

21, Dec, 2022 @2:30 PM