The leader of the Royal College of Nursing has said a legal attempt by the health secretary to block next weekend’s strike in England is “frightening for democracy and very frightening for trade unionism”.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, said it was “disgraceful” that Steve Barclay was attempting to thwart the strike via the courts, and said nurses would “not be bullied into silence”.
“We have instructed our legal counsel and we will stand up for nursing. This is about standing up not just for nursing but for trade unionism and for democracy,” she told the Observer.
The court battle over the strike is the latest escalation in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. It comes as the government faces discontent on several fronts, with teachers in England and Northern Ireland also set to go on strike again this week, and further junior doctor strikes also on the cards.
If the next nursing strike goes ahead as planned, it will see thousands of members of the RCN working for the NHS in England walk out for 48 hours over the May bank holiday weekend.
The industrial action would include nurses in emergency departments and intensive care units, for the first time, and is expected to cause widespread disruption for patients.
But the government and the NHS Employers organisation believe it is unlawful and have urged the RCN to call it off. They say the union’s six-month mandate for industrial action expires during the strike period, and argue that this renders the whole strike unlawful. In legal documents issued on Friday, Barclay ordered the union to cancel the walkout by midday on Monday or face further action.
This weekend, the RCN said it had no intention of calling off the strike before the Monday deadline and vowed to see the government in court. “Give in to bullies and they will keep on bullying,” Cullen said.
She described the decision to fight nurses “in the courtroom rather than the negotiation room” as “frightening for democracy”. “It’s utterly disgraceful that he [Barclay] would prefer to use money to challenge nurses than to pay them, at a time when those nurses are struggling to pay their bills. He is using public funding, patients’ money, to challenge nurses through the court.”
She added that a claim by Barclay that the government’s legal action sought to protect nurses who could “otherwise be asked to take part in unlawful activity that could in turn put their professional registration at risk” was a “blatant threat”. “He is trying to frighten nursing staff. That registration is their livelihood,” she said.
The stalemate means the government is likely to apply to the high court for an interim declaration that the strike is unlawful, with an urgent hearing likely to take place this week. If the high court rules in the government’s favour, it could prevent the May Day strike from going ahead, but the RCN is already preparing to ballot members for another six months of industrial action, meaning that, for the government, it may only be a temporary fix.
Cullen said that whatever the legal ruling, the decision to take the fight to the courts would only serve to galvanise nurses further. “They believe that this is Steve Barclay trying to take their voice away,” she said. “He may win this battle but he will not win the professional war with nursing staff. They will not be told that they cannot have a voice in a democratic society that we live in.”
The RCN, which represents nurses in England, is calling on the government to make a “significantly improved” pay offer after its members rejected a previous proposal for a 5% pay rise and a one-off payment of at least £1,655.
Nurses have already gone on strike twice this year, in January and February. However, during those strikes, nursing cover was maintained in critical areas. The proposed further strikes for next weekend will not include national exemptions.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said it was a “damning indictment” of the government that it would “rather take nurses to court than sit down and negotiate”. “Everyone wants to see emergency care provided but picking a fight like this will further destroy whatever trust remains between the negotiating parties. Ministers must get back round the table and work night and day to agree a fair deal.”
Last night, a spokesperson for the health secretary declined to comment on the RCN’s claim that he was trying to bully nurses. In a statement on Friday, Barclay said he had “no choice” but to pursue the legal action and was doing so following a request from NHS Employers. “The government firmly believes in the right to strike, but it is vital that any industrial action is lawful and I have no choice but to take action. Strike action with no national exemptions agreed, including for emergency and cancer care, will also put patient safety at risk,” he said.
Daniel Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “The RCN ballot for industrial action ended at midday on 2 November 2022 and allows the union six months to undertake any action approved by that ballot.
“NHS Employers has written to the RCN stating our view – on behalf of trusts in England, and with clear legal advice – that the RCN’s mandate for industrial action ends at midnight on Monday 1 May. We have therefore asked the RCN to amend its guidance to its members regarding any action planned for Tuesday 2 May 2023. We are in ongoing exchanges with the RCN on this matter.”