Hundreds of nurses marched on Downing Street on Wednesday to support striking colleagues.
At the front of the march, a group held a banner which read: “Striking to save the NHS.”
Vehicles on the road beeped as nurses marched towards Westminster.
One motorist rolled down the window of his van and waved an RCN “I support fair pay for nursing” badge.
The crowd chanted “claps don’t pay the bills” as members of the public looked on from the pavements and the shops of London Theatreland.
One marching nurse held a sign that said: “We can’t put patients first if you put nurses last.”
Anne Gadsden was at the picket line outside UCL Hospital to show solidarity for a nurse looking after her child.
She said: “I’ve come here to represent the nurses looking after my child.
“He’s in intensive care… in an induced coma.
“So I’m here because she’s looking after my son. She can’t come so I’m here.”
Ms Gadsden called the NHS “the most wonderful thing in the world” and said that it was “going under”.
Asked if her son’s care has been affected, she said it was the “quality of people” looking after him that was “holding it together”.
The RCN has announced that two further, bigger strikes will be held next month, while the GMB union is expected to announce further ambulance worker strike dates on Wednesday afternoon.
One nurse confronted the Health Secretary saying “every day is a challenge” as he visited a hospital in north-west London during the nursing strike.
Alicia Borja told Steve Barclay at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow: “We have so many ambulances coming here. We cover a very big area and we are always short of staff, that’s another challenge, but we try to pull together and we have a very good team.
“We have hard work here and all the nurses are doing the hard work and management are doing their best.
“Every day is a challenge.”
Speaking to broadcasters during the visit, Barclay appeared to rule out a 10 per cent pay rise for nurses, insisting it was “not affordable”.
“Well 10 per cent is not affordable, it would be an extra £3.6 billion a year and obviously that would take money away from patient services, essential services that we need to invest in given the backlogs from the pandemic,” he said.
“Now, within Government we take a whole Government approach – of course I have discussions with the Treasury, as do other Secretaries of State, and these things need to be balanced not just with the needs of teachers, with the Education Secretary, or train drivers with the Transport Secretary, but also what’s affordable for your viewers in terms of their own cost-of-living pressures.”
He insisted he was working “constructively” with unions but said he was “disappointed” in the strikes.
“The losers in that are the patients,” he added.
It comes as a new YouGov poll of 2,000 UK adults found that the majority of people are not confident that they would get the treatment they needed if they called 999 with a health emergency.
The NHS is reminding patients to attend all their usual appointments unless they have been contacted, and to seek urgent care if needed during the strikes.
NHS England said patients should use services “wisely” by going to NHS 111 online but continuing to call 999 in a life-threatening emergency.
Deputy chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle said: “The NHS has tried and tested methods in place to manage any disruption and has been working hard to minimise the impact for patients.”
Thousands of operations and appointments are expected to be cancelled during the two consecutive days of strike action. Almost 30,000 needed to be rescheduled following December’s nurse strikes.
The health service is likely to run a bank holiday-style service in many areas.
The RCN has agreed to staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care.
Some areas of mental health and learning disability and autism services are also exempt from the strike, while trusts will be told they can request staffing for specific clinical needs.
When it comes to adult A&E and urgent care,nurses will work Christmas Day-style rotas.
RCN chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “Today’s strike action by nursing staff is a modest escalation before a sharp increase in under three weeks from now.
“If a week is a long time for Rishi Sunak, three weeks is the time he needs to get this resolved.
“People aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because people are dying.
“That is how severe things are in the NHS and it is time the Prime Minister led a fight for its future.
“Today’s record number of unfilled nurse jobs cannot be left to get worse. Pay nursing staff fairly to turn this around and give the public the care they deserve.”
Barclay has signalled that pay negotiations will look ahead to next year rather than reflecting on the 2022/23 pay award, which unions have said must be reviewed.
He said: “Patients will understandably be worried by the prospect of further strike action by nurses – the previous two days of nurse strikes saw around 30,000 elective procedures and outpatient appointments cancelled.
“It is inevitable industrial action will have an impact on patients.
“I have had constructive talks with the Royal College of Nursing and other unions about the 2023/24 pay process and look forward to continuing that dialogue.”
It comes after Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, urged ministers to renew pay talks with unions in a bid to halt further industrial action.
He suggested waiting lists are likely to remain stubbornly high unless the Government gives the “NHS a fighting chance”.