Up to 100,000 nurses to strike in December with threat to escalate action

Nurses will begin a series of strikes at dozens of hospitals in December – and will escalate their industrial action if ministers keep refusing to negotiate over pay.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced on Tuesday that up to 100,000 nurses will stay off work at many, but not all, of the hospitals and other NHS bodies where members have voted to stop work.

But the union made clear that it would increase the scale of its industrial action unless Steve Barclay, the health secretary, engages in detailed talks over their demand for a pay rise of inflation plus 5%.

Related: Nurses are struggling – our strike has been a long time coming

“Ministers have declined my offer of formal pay negotiations and instead chosen strike action. It has left us with no choice but to announce where our members will be going on strike in December,” said Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary and chief executive.

The stoppages on 15 and 20 December will severely disrupt care and services at 53 NHS organisations in England – about half those where the RCN’s recent ballot produced a majority of nurses in favour of withdrawing their labour. They will include major acute hospitals in cities across the country, including Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham, as well as at specialist cancer, children’s and surgical centres and a number of mental health care providers.

Nurses will also strike at 12 of the 13 health boards and other NHS bodies in Wales and at other organisations such as Cardiff University hospital and the headquarters of the Welsh ambulance service. RCN members will stop work at all 11 NHS bodies in Northern Ireland, which will affect the levels of activity on strike days at hospitals such as the City, Ulster and Royal Victoria hospitals in Belfast.

“The RCN taking industrial action on this scale is extraordinary and shows the strength of feeling within the profession,” said Prof Alison Leary, the chair of healthcare and workforce modelling at London South Bank University.

“The call for strike action is founded in pay. Nurses have seen the value of their salary decrease significantly over the last 10 years. However, a lot of the motivation around the vote is understaffing. Nurses are unable to give the care they feel patients need and this is causing moral distress,” she added.

NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England, urged the RCN and Barclay to instigate urgent talks to try to find a solution to avert the walkouts.

“Everybody wants to avoid prolonged industrial action. We understand how strongly nurses feel and why it has come to this but the NHS is facing what may be its hardest ever winter, amid severe staff shortages and ever-increasing demand for services,” said Saffron Cordery, its interim chief executive.

The RCN’s move came as Unison announced that NHS ambulance staff in many parts of England “are likely to strike” before Christmas in protest at the government’s offer of a pay rise of “at least £1,400” this year for most health service personnel except for doctors and dentists.

Thousands of paramedics, call handlers and other ambulance service workers will stay off work in the north-east, north-west, London, Yorkshire and the south-west, Unison said, announcing that its month-long strike ballot had produced a vote in favour among members in many health trusts across England.

Deciding to strike is “especially challenging for those whose jobs involve caring and saving lives. But thousands of ambulance staff and their NHS colleagues know delays won’t lessen, nor waiting times reduce, until the government acts on wages. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision to strike,” said Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary.

Another key health union, the GMB, is due to announce within days the result of a ballot among its members about strike action. GMB also represents paramedics and others who work in NHS ambulance services. Hospital bosses are privately very concerned about the impact of stoppages by ambulance staff, given that services are already unable to answer 999 calls and get patients to hospital fast enough.

Responding to the RCN’s move, Barclay reiterated that “the RCN’s demands, which on current figures are a 19.2% pay rise, costing £10bn a year [for most NHS staff, not just nurses], are not affordable”. He insisted “my door is open” to talking to the RCN but only about issues such as working conditions and how to tackle the backlog of care, rather than pay.