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NHS pay deal: will nurses see strike action as their only option?

Industrial action seems a strong possibility as nursing staff in the health service face prospect of pay rises that fall far short of inflation

Nursing staff outside the Ulster Hospital during the 2019-20 pay strikes in Northern Ireland’s NHS Picture: Alamy

From Post Office staff to teachers, doctors and, of course, nurses; it’s difficult to find public sector workers who aren’t in some kind of conflict with government over their pay.

This week’s walk-out is by criminal barristers in England and Wales, who began a series of strikes over legal aid funding.

NHS nurses face difficult decisions about how to react to their pay award

As I write, nursing and other NHS staff in England are waiting to hear from the Westminster government about their award for 2022-23. Their counterparts in Wales expect an announcement from the Welsh Government shortly too. No one is holding their breath for an inflation-busting pay rise and unions face having to ask their members to make yet more difficult decisions about how to react.

RCN members in Scotland will be consulted in July over whether to accept a 5% pay offer, with the college recommending this be rejected, before considering further action.

Change in the law to allow agency staff to provide cover during strike action

The government in England is now attempting to frustrate any potential union action by changing laws to allow agency workers to cover affected roles, and quadrupling the potential fine unions will be forced to pay for any unlawful action. This move is akin to sticking fingers in your ears to dull a deafening noise. The problem won’t just go away, rather, yet more staff will simply leave the NHS. This will exacerbate already huge vacancy rates and heap further pressures on patient care. There is irony in this, given that the government’s purported motive for changing the law is to keep services operating safely.

The government’s case doesn’t stand up in any case because nurses and doctors always ensure essential services are running during periods of industrial action, as demonstrated by nursing staff in Northern Ireland who went on strike in 2019-20.

No nurses anywhere in the UK are yet at the point of striking but the legal manoeuvres by ministers in this summer of simmering discontent suggest anxiety at Westminster that more public sector workers – nurses among them – could soon follow the lead shown elsewhere in the public sector.

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