Strikes: minimum service levels could force hospital nurses to work
New consultation looks at whether nurses working in urgent, emergency and ‘time-critical’ hospital services should have to provide a certain level of cover during industrial action
The government has outlined plans to enforce minimum service levels for nurses working in some hospital settings as it looks to extend new strike laws.
New regulations under the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act give ministers the power to impose minimum levels of service during industrial action, with employees facing disciplinary action or even dismissal if they refuse to comply with a work notice while on the picket line.
Consultation could have significant implications for nurses
Now the government has confirmed is it considering introducing minimum service levels for nurses and doctors working in some hospital settings. It would mean nurses working in urgent, emergency and ‘time-critical’ hospital services may have to provide a certain level of cover during industrial action.
A new consultation, launched today, will look at introducing such levels for nurses and doctors working in these areas, with rules possibly put in place next year.
A previous consultation has already run for ambulance workers before the act became law in July. The result of this consultation is expected to be published in due course.
The government says that while voluntary agreements between employers and trade unions on minimum service levels can be agreed ahead of time, they come with ‘significant uncertainty’ as they are based on goodwill and not always communicated to staff in sufficient time, causing risk to patient safety.
Consultants and junior doctors on strike
The call for views comes as junior doctors and consultants undertake coordinated strike action in England this week over pay and working conditions. NHS Providers has warned the health service will face significant disruption to patient care, with thousands of appointments expected to be cancelled.
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘My top priority is to protect patients and these regulations would provide a safety net for trusts and an assurance to the public that vital health services will be there when they need them.
‘In the face of ongoing and escalating strike action, we will continue to take steps to protect patient safety and ensure the health service has the staff it needs to operate safely and effectively.’
UN watchdog investigating anti-strike law
Trade unions have strongly opposed the new law, arguing that it seeks to restrict workers’ right to strike. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has reported the government to the International Labour Organization – the United Nations workers’ rights watchdog – over the law.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak had this to say on X (formerly known as Twitter):
New law ‘doesn’t address issues underlying current strike action’
NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said the consultation risks worsening industrial relations between the government and trade unions.
‘This legislation – as well as the consultation announced today – doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action, including dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions.’
Union highlights lack of safe staffing levels even on non-strike days
RCN director of nursing Nicola Ranger said the minimum service level proposals will not address the underlying NHS workforce crisis and called on the government to invest in the nursing workforce.
‘The RCN has always been responsible in taking safe strike action, with concerns for patient safety at its core. However, nursing staff will tell you there are not safe staffing levels on non-strike days – and they are sometimes unable to provide the level of service and care patients need.
‘Patients are routinely waiting hours for care or ending up being treated in corridors. There are also tens of thousands of unfilled nursing posts. That’s why nurses took strike action – something that has proved to be the only way to get the voice of nursing staff heard.’
A separate consultation is currently seeking views on how the law can be implemented to establish a code of practice for trade unions and their members to follow during industrial action.
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