Nurses’ strikes one year on: how NHS staff took historic stand

Look back at what nurses told us on the picket lines and why they continue to have public’s support to take industrial action over NHS pay and safe staffing

Nurses holding placards and dressed for the cold weather, picket Northern General Hospital in Sheffield
Nurses picket the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield Picture: John Houlihan

Today marks one year since NHS nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland took to picket lines in historic strike action, most of them for the first time.

Nurses took the industrial action for better pay and working conditions, and to highlight unsafe staffing levels and their message was ‘enough is enough’.

The RCN announced in November 2022 that tens of thousands of its members had voted to strike. This would herald rounds of strikes and negotiations with governments in each country.

Nurses in Scotland also voted to take industrial action, but talks with the Scottish government averted this.

‘I was so proud of striking nurses’

NHS striker smiles to the camera outside Royal Marsden in London
A striker in good spirits outside the Royal Marsden in London Picture: John Houlihan
Striking nurses look happy standing outside the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. One holds a 'sage staffing' placard and speaks into a loud hailer
Nurses picket Northern General in Sheffield Picture: John Houlihan

Speaking to Nursing Standard in a podcast marking the strikes’ first anniversary, RCN chief nurse Nicola Ranger described it as a ‘momentous occasion’ and said the action was a clear indication of how frustrated nurses were about their pay and working conditions.

Ms Ranger said: ‘We showed we could raise our voices and we are a profession that is prepared to be strong and loud with what we have to say on behalf of ourselves and our patients,’ she said.

‘I don’t know any nurse that took this action lightly. What I heard on every picket line, whenever they were spoken to, they talked about themselves but their next breath was always the patient. I was so proud of them.’

Ms Ranger said nurses did not end up with the pay rise they deserved, adding the RCN would continue to advocate for them with the government.

‘People aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because people are dying’

Pat Cullen, general secretary, RCN during college’s members’ industrial action

Nurses’ strikes were about more than pay, they were about the NHS

Nurses with homemade strike sign on brown cardboard stand on approach to Westminster Bridge with Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in the background
Nurses from St Thomas’ Hospital in London picketed within sight of parliament Picture: John Houlihan

Striking nurses braved plunging temperatures as they wielded placards bearing messages such as ‘Staff shortages cost lives’ and ‘NHS hero, but my wallet says zero’.

Chants of ‘1, 2, 3, 4, we can’t take it anymore; 5 ,6, 7, 8, come on Rishi, negotiate’ and ‘Claps don’t pay the bills’ were heard up outside their workplaces.

Speaking to Nursing Standard on picket lines, many nurses said they were at breaking point and could not continue working as they were. Their position was unmistakable: the strikes were about more than a pay rise, they were for the very future of the NHS.

Some described working for the service as like being in a war zone, while others expressed their worries about letting patients down because of severe staff shortages. Many said they were close to quitting their jobs because of intolerable working conditions, saying no-one should have to put up with long shifts without a break – a situation many said they faced daily.

Backing for striking nurses from members of the public and celebrities

NHS striker holding RCN picket sign waves at unseen person. Road in front of her is traffic-lined
Striking nurses outside James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough Picture: John Houlihan

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said during the industrial action: ‘People aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because people are dying. That is how severe things are in the NHS.’

Public support for striking nurses appeared strong, with drivers tooting their horns and cheering as they passed pickets. Celebrities such as Rob Delaney and TV presenter Dr Chris van Tulleken appeared on picket lines to show their solidarity.

Public opinion remains behind nurses’ industrial action

Strikers outside St James’s Hospital in Leeds hold homemade and official RCN placards, some hold their arms in the air and are smiling
The picket outside St James’s University Hospital in Leeds Picture: John Houlihan

RCN polling, published today, reveals public support for nurses is still strong. Of the more than 2,000 people surveyed across the UK, 73% said they would support nurses going on strike over staffing in 2024 and 66% said they would support strikes that were about pay.

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