Health leaders have expressed “huge concern” as the NHS faces potentially the biggest day of strike action in its history next month.
Thousands of ambulance workers and nurses are set to strike on the same day in February, as the pay dispute between health workers and the Government shows no signs of reaching a resolution.
But the Prime Minister insisted that ministers want “construction dialogue” with unions.
On Wednesday, the GMB union said more than 10,000 ambulance workers – including paramedics, emergency care assistants and call handlers – will stage strikes on February 6, February 20, March 6 and March 20.
Nurses are also due to strike on February 6 – meaning mass disruption can be expected across the NHS on that day. Nurses will also strike the following day, February 7.
It is the first time both ambulance staff and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have acted on the same day.
The escalation in industrial action comes as thousands of nurses are on strike on Wednesday and Thursday this week at more than 55 NHS trusts in England.
Commenting on the combined strike action, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said: “Trusts have been warning for months that coordinated strikes were a possibility if the Government and unions failed to reach an early agreement on this year’s pay award.
“The prospect of ambulance workers and nurses striking on the same day is a huge concern.
“It could be the biggest day of industrial action the NHS has ever seen.
“Nobody in the NHS wants more strikes, including staff joining picket lines.
“Trust leaders understand why overstretched staff have reached this point amid chronic staff shortages and ever-growing demand and pressure.
“We need ministers to get round the table with the unions urgently to deal with the key issue of pay for this financial year, otherwise there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added: “This escalation takes us deeper in to the situation NHS leaders have been warning against – a war of attrition between the government and unions spanning several months at a time when NHS services are seeing unprecedented pressures.
“Health leaders will now be intensifying plans and preparations for the combined strike of nurses and ambulance workers next month, which will pose a more significant challenge to services than the industrial action we have seen to date.”
Speaking to broadcasters at a police station in London, Rishi Sunak said: “We’re very keen to have a constructive dialogue, not just with the nurses’ union, but with unions across the public sector.
“At the beginning of the year, the Government wrote individually to all public sector unions inviting them in to have talks with their relevant ministers.
“I’m pleased to say that those talks are ongoing and we’re keen to find a constructive way forward and bring these strikes to an end.
“Of course I understand the impact they’re having on people’s lives and I understand why people are frustrated.
“But we do also need to make sure that those conversations are based on what’s reasonable, what’s responsible for the country as we tackle inflation, which is good for everybody if we can get that down as quickly as possible, but also what’s affordable.”
He added: “As we tackle inflation, we need to be responsible with public sector pay settlements, we have to think about what’s reasonable but also what is affordable for the country.”
“The Government and all ministers are sitting down, not just with the nurses’ union, but with all unions to have constructive dialogue and find a way through and we’re committed to making sure that we can also reduce the burden of the cost of living on people.”
Meanwhile Health Secretary Steve Barclay ruled out a 10% pay rise for nurses, insisting it was “not affordable”.
“Well 10% 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 on a visit to Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north-west London.
He insisted he was working “constructively” with unions, but said he was “disappointed” over the strikes.
“The losers in that are the patients,” he added.
During the visit, a senior nurse told him that “every day is a challenge”.
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.
Some 24% of those who responded to the Channel 4 News survey said they were “not confident at all” and a further 36% said they were “not very confident” while only 4% said they were very confident they would get the assistance they needed.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Channel 4 News the Prime Minister needed to “step in”.
He said: “If I were the health secretary and we’d had the first national nurses’ strike in the history of the NHS and now the biggest strike in the history of the NHS, full stop, planned next month, I would be hauled into Downing Street to see Keir Starmer to explain why I’d failed and he’d be telling me to get around the table to negotiate.”
Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said earlier nurses feel “totally heartbroken” at going on strike, but have no choice.
She urged the Government to get back around the table to “resolve this dispute” but said no talks are currently scheduled.
Ms Cullen told the PA news agency that the Government cannot afford to lose “one single nurse”.
She said: “No nurse should be ashamed to say that, actually, they’re really struggling to live on the meagre salaries that this Government’s paying them.
“It’s their right to be paid a decent wage.”
In a statement at the end of the day of strike action, Ms Cullen said: “Rather than grabbing our olive branch, Steve Barclay is desperately looking for new ways not to negotiate with nurses.
“Hundreds of impassioned nurses told me in person today that this strike is about discovering their voice after many years of being let down. The patients who joined picket lines see this as a battle for the soul of the NHS as much as it’s about pay rises.
“With just as many nursing staff ready to head into the cold again tomorrow morning, the Prime Minister must ask himself why and understand that only he can set the NHS on a better path.”
On Tuesday, Mr Barclay signalled pay negotiations will look ahead to next year rather than reflecting on the 2022/23 pay award, which unions have said must be reviewed.
Thousands of operations and appointments are expected to be cancelled due to the strike action on Wednesday and Thursday. Almost 30,000 needed to be rescheduled following December’s nurse strikes.
Meanwhile, union leaders have said “no progress” was made during a meeting with the Education Secretary in a bid to avert strike action over teachers’ pay.
Gillian Keegan held talks with unions representing teachers and school leaders on Wednesday after walkouts in February and March were announced by the National Education Union.