Nurses across Britain launched a historic strike on Thursday, walking out of hospitals and onto picket lines after several years of falling pay and falling standards have left the country’s nationalized health system in crisis.
As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – the UK’s largest nursing union – are taking industrial action in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the latest and unprecedented wave of strikes to sweep Britain this winter. It is the biggest strike in the RCN’s 106-year history.
But it comes after several years of hardship for workers in Britain’s NHS, a venerable but underfunded institution struggling with staff shortages, skyrocketing demand and strained funding.
“I went into nursing to care for patients, and over the years my ability to provide the level of care my patients deserve has been compromised,” said Andrea Mackay, who worked as a nurse for seven years at a hospital in southwest England. CNN on its reasons for the strike on Thursday.
“The reality is that every day, nurses across the UK walk into understaffed hospitals,” Mackay said. “The NHS has been running on the compassion and goodwill of nurses for years… this is not sustainable.”
“It’s a matter of paying the staff what they’re worth so they can pay the bills,” Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse who is preparing to join the strike, told CNN, adding that staff pressures have affected the emergency department where she regularly works. “During one of my worst shifts I was the only nurse for 28 sick children … it’s not safe and we can’t provide the care these children need sometimes,” she said.
Pamela Jones, on a picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, told PA media: “I’m on strike today because I’ve been a nurse for 32 years; in those 32 years the changes have been astronomical.
“I really feel sorry for the young girls who are now trying to integrate into the profession, they have to pay for their training. The public needs to understand the pressures everyone is under. You just have to go into the emergency room and see the queues, there are no beds.
“We want to save our NHS, we don’t want it to go through, and I think that’s the way forward, that’s the only way we can get our point across. We don’t want to be here. I’m really torn about the strike because it’s not something I ever, ever thought In my lifetime I will have to do it, but nevertheless the government pushed us to do it.”
She added: “I hope the government listens, because none of us want to be here, we just want a fair salary increase.”
The strike takes place over two days – next Thursday and Tuesday – and not every NHS Trust will be taking part. But it marks one of the most dramatic uses of industrial action in the NHS’s 74-year history, and has intensified the debate about the state of Britain’s public services.
The RCN is calling for a pay rise of 5% above retail inflation, which in current figures amounts to a 19% increase, and for the government to fill a record number of staff vacancies, which it claims are putting patient safety at risk. Steve Barclay, Britain’s health secretary, told CNN in a statement earlier this week that their demand was “unaffordable.”
The dispute follows years of disputes over the level of pay for NHS workers. Nursing pay fell by 1.2% annually between 2010 and 2017 after inflation was taken into account, according to the Health Foundation, a UK charity that promotes better health and wellness. In the first three years of those years, their salary was frozen.
The number of patients waiting for treatment skyrocketed in the meantime, a long-standing trend that worsened following the epidemic.
A record 7.2 million people in England – more than one in eight residents – are currently waiting for treatment, according to the British Medical Association. Seven years ago, the figure was 3.3 million.
“I work alongside some amazing (nurses) who came in early, left late, worked breaks and lunch, agreed to come in on their days off for overtime to make sure their patients were kept as safe as we could,” McKay told CNN.
“I don’t have all the answers and I understand there is a limit to the money available, but unless the government prioritizes health, patient safety, (and) strengthening the workforce then the NHS is going to collapse,” she said.
The NHS, free at the point of care, is a central part of Britain’s national psyche and the third rail of the country’s politics. During the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of Britons stood outside their homes to applaud NHS workers, in a weekly ceremony championed by the government.
But it has since been criticized as an empty gesture by disgruntled workers, who say the government’s pay offers to workers did not represent the same spirit.
Earlier this year, the RCN rejected a government proposal to increase nurses’ pay by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year, which amounted to an average increase of 4.3%, well below the rate of inflation.
“I have long-term care patients who can remember life before the NHS. They know how expensive it is because they’ve seen what it was before,” Mackay said.
Labor leader Keir Starmer attacked Rishi Sonk on strike during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and told him the “whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he stopped the strike by striking a deal with the RCN.
The industrial action was “a disgrace to this government”, Starmer said.
Most of the nurses taking part in the action on Thursday are striking for the first time in their lives. But they are joining workers across Britain’s public services in walking off the job demanding increased pay and conditions, spurring a mounting wave of strikes unlike any seen in Britain for decades.
Workers on Britain’s railways, buses, motorways and borders are taking industrial action this month, bringing various forms of travel to a virtual standstill. Teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers and paramedics are also expected to strike in December.
This left the government struggling to respond. Members of Britain’s armed forces have been trained to drive ambulances and fight fires in the event of strike action, ministers said earlier this month. On Tuesday, the Police Union announced that it opposes the request to transport police officers in ambulances.
And the unions have threatened further action in the new year, when the cost of living crisis that has clouded Britain in recent months is expected to get worse still.
A total of 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the latest month for which figures are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is the highest number in any month since 2011.
The impact of these strikes has led sections of the British media to rekindle memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” in 1978 and 1979, when protests brought Britain to a standstill – although this year’s level of industrial action is a fraction of those months. , where several million working days were lost.
Sunak has been accused by opposition parties of refusing to negotiate with unions in good faith, and of not doing enough to prevent strikes from starting.
But the ongoing disputes are a thorny issue for both major parties. Labor – a party with historically strong ties to trade unions – is walking a tightrope, calling on the government to do more, but refusing to explicitly support picketing demands.