Hundreds of thousands of nurses across the UK are to be balloted about going on strike in a move that risks disrupting the NHS this winter.
For the first time in its 106-year history the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is balloting 300,000 of its members about strike action and recommending that they vote in favour.
The ballot is in protest at the government’s decision in July to award most NHS staff a 5% pay rise, which ministers say will lead to frontline personnel receiving a salary increase of at least £1,400. Nurses should get a rise of 5% above inflation – which is currently 10.1% – the RCN claims.
“This is a once in a generation chance to improve your pay and combat the staff shortages that put patients at risk,” said Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary and chief executive, in a message to members who are due to receive a ballot paper. “Governments have repeatedly neglected the NHS and the value of nursing. We can change this if together we say ‘enough is enough’.
“Record numbers are feeling no alternative but to quit and patients pay a heavy price. We are doing this for them too.”
Speaking on Thursday, she said nurses would still provide critical care if the strike went ahead. “Nurses will do nothing to add to the risk that patients are facing every single day as a consequence of not having those nurses in the system to look after them,” she told the Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I had a privilege to lead the first nurses’ strike in Northern Ireland for 103 years. That was done very safely, very effectively and totally professionally, and that put no patient at further risk. We had very clear protocols about organising it. There is no thing in our profession where we down tools and walk off wards or leave our patients in the community.
“We continue to provide critical services throughout any strike.”
The Guardian reported last week that hospital bosses in England have found that some nurses are skipping meals in order to feed and clothe their children instead.
The RCN ballot will close on 2 November. Other groups of NHS workers, including junior doctors and physiotherapists, are also threatening to go on strike to get a bigger pay rise.
The RCN must overcome similar but different legal hurdles in the four home nations before it can take any industrial action. For example, at least 50% of all members balloted in England and Scotland have to vote, and 40% of them endorse a strike, before any legal walkouts can begin.
Recent research by the Health Foundation thinktank found NHS nurses’ average basic earnings fell by 5% in real terms between 2011 and 2021, a period that included most of a seven-year public sector pay cap.
One nurse in London, who is also an RCN activist, said she would vote to go on strike, as would almost all her colleagues, as soaring inflation means the 5% offer is a real-terms pay cut. “The anger is palpable. Hospital trusts are setting up food banks for nurses who cannot afford to feed themselves and their children,” she said. “The same nurses who people stood on their doorsteps and clapped in appreciation for, during the pandemic.
“For years nurses have waited and negotiated in the hope of being paid at least a living wage. In vain, as the latest pay insult from the government shows. The fact is since austerity began nurses have suffered a 15% pay cut.”
She added: “As a nurse, I’ve never been able to afford a mortgage and now I’m actually beginning to worry whether I’ll be able to afford my London rent and have to move into a hostel.”
Nurses are overworked and patients’ safety is at risk, she added.
“The NHS is imploding before our eyes and with nursing shortages of 47,000 [in England], nurses are being forced to do the work of two or three. Clearly we cannot deliver safe care from this position.
“Ethically and professionally nurses must refuse to collude in a negligent system, which is a betrayal of our professional duty to uphold patient safety.”