Nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will go on strike from 08:00 on Thursday in the largest strike of its kind in the history of the British Health Service.
Nursing will continue to provide some of its urgent services but routine surgery and other planned treatments are likely to be disrupted.
The Royal College of Nursing said nurses had no other choice after ministers refused to resume wage talks.
The British government said that the request of the Royal College of Nursing to increase salaries by 19% could not bear its financial consequences.
The strike will affect about a quarter of all hospitals in England, all health boards in Northern Ireland and all but one in Wales. Nursing staff in Scotland are not taking part in the strike.
Under trade union laws, the Royal College of Nursing must ensure life-sustaining care continues during the 12-hour strike.
Chemotherapy and dialysis sessions should continue as normal, as should intensive and critical care, pediatric accident and emergency and neonatal units in hospitals.
The greatest effect is likely to be in pre-booked treatment such as umbilical hernia surgeries, joint replacement or outpatient surgery.
The NHS said it was “essential” for people to continue to apply for emergency care during the strikes and anyone not called to reschedule an appointment should go as planned.
“We’re running out of patience – we’re underpaid and under-recognized,” says nurse anesthetist Lindsey Thompson, from Northern Ireland.
“Yes, this is a wage dispute but it’s also very much about patient safety,” she added.
“We can’t recruit enough nurses, and that means patient safety is at risk,” she said.
Thompson, who worked as a nurse for 12 years, says her colleagues “never want to strike” but feel the need to take action “to protect the NHS” after a period of sub-inflation pay increases.
“We just feel like we have no other choice, because the government is not listening to us,” she says.
The Royal College of Nursing approved the votes of more than 300,000 male and female nurses through medical services funds and councils individually instead of a single national vote.
This meant that some nurses were not entitled to take part in the strike, because turnout in their local area was very low.
In England, the first round of strikes will continue in 51 of the 219 hospitals, mental health and community services institutions.
Strikes are also continuing in all but one of the Health Boards in Northern Ireland and in all but one of the Health Boards in Wales.
Most general practitioner services clinics will not be affected, as the nurses working in them directly are not entitled to participate in the vote, but the strike will include district nurses who provide their services in people’s homes or in other places for treatment.
The second day of the strike will begin on December 20, unless there is a breakthrough in the talks.
How will patients be affected?
- People with serious illnesses or injuries, whose lives are in danger, should call 999 as usual, or call 111 for non-urgent care.
- Other services, such as some cancer treatments, mental health services, or urgent testing, may be partially staffed
- Routine care including planned operations such as knee and hip replacements, community nursing services and health visits are likely to be affected
- Anyone who has an appointment who has not already been told to change their appointment must go at their allotted time
- GPs, pharmacies and dentists will not be affected
And in England and Wales, most NHS staff have already received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year – about four percent on average for nurses.
The political situation in Northern Ireland has delayed the payment of the increase, but nursing staff will receive back payments before the end of the year.
The Royal College of Nursing wants a five percent increase over the rate of inflation, saying its members have received years of under-inflation pay rises.
England’s health secretary, Steve Barclay, said further pay increases meant money was taken away from other frontline services.
“I have been working across government and with paramedics outside the public sector to ensure safe staffing levels, but I remain concerned about the risks strikes pose to patients,” he said.
Barclay added that the government had followed the recommendation of the Independent Pay Review Body, which said in July that NHS workers should receive a £1,400 raise, with a slight increase for more experienced nurses.
Welsh ministers said they were unable to enter wage talks without additional funding from the UK government.
And in Scotland, the nursing staff strike has been paused after ministers made a new offer of just over £2,200 a year for most NHS staff. Nurses have been asked to vote on this agreement, and the results are due next week.
David is one of the patients who had to be fitted with a pacemaker on Thursday at a hospital in Wales.
Since he underwent heart surgery five years ago, his NHS treatment has been “flawless”, he says.
But being called and told Thursday’s procedure had been postponed left him “frustrated and disappointed.” A new date has not been set yet.
David says, “If you… [تعمل] In a profession where lives are at stake, I feel it is wrong to strike.”
“Especially at Christmas and when others are also striking, it is not a good time,” he added.
Union bosses offered to suspend strikes if the British government agreed to reopen serious discussions about wages.
But a face-to-face meeting scheduled for this week fell apart, with the Royal College of Nursing accusing Barclay of “hostility” and of having “not much to say”.
It would be only the second time that members of the Royal College of Nursing have struck in its 106-year history. Until 1995, the union had an official no-strike policy in its rulebook.
In 2019, nurses in Northern Ireland went on strike. In 2014, members of the Unicin union in England also went on strike to protest wages.
This winter, a number of other health workers’ unions have voted to strike across Britain, with a series of strikes planned over Christmas and New Year.