No plans to coordinate strikes between nurses and doctors but disruption could last until Christmas, union leader warns

NHS Nurses from the Royal College of Nursing form a picket line as they strike for safe staffing levels, fair pay and working conditions outside St Thomas Hospital on 6th February 2023 in London, United Kingdom. Today nursing staff joined ambulance workers on strike on what will be the largest industrial action by healthcare workers as record numbers of them walk out, placing yet more pressure on the National Health Service during already difficult times. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
NHS nurses from the Royal College of Nursing form a picket line outside St Thomas's Hospital in London in February. (Getty Images)

The leader of England's biggest nursing union has said there are no plans to coordinate strikes with junior doctors - a move that would put the NHS under an unprecedented level of strain.

However, Pat Cullen, the leader of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), refused to be drawn on whether both professions could be on the picket line on the same day several months down the line.

She said the longer the dispute with the government over pay, conditions and staffing levels continues, the more patients will feel the impact, warning that strikes could continue right up until Christmas.

It comes after the RCN voted this week to hold a 48-hour strike from 30 April after rejecting a pay offer from the government.

As junior doctors staged a four-day strike this week, which ended on Saturday morning, Dr Arjan Singh, a representative of the British Medical Association, said "all options are on the table" regarding a possible joint strike with nurses.

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, told Sky News on Saturday that coordinated strike action would be "completely unprecedented" and a "deeply concerning" scenario.

Read more: NHS strikes: Escalating industrial action by nurses endangers patients, NHS leader warns

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) leader Pat Cullen speaks to the media outside BBC Broadcasting House in London, following her appearance on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday April 16, 2023. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA Images via Getty Images)
RCN leader Pat Cullen has warned strikes could continue up until Christmas. (Getty Images)

However, Cullen, the trade unionist behind the country's biggest wave of nursing walkouts, told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme: "We have no plans in place to co-ordinate strikes.

"But if the government continues to allow doctors and nurses to spend their time on picket lines and not in their places of work, in their hospitals and communities then of course the impact of those strikes whether co-ordinated or not will be felt by our patients."

When pressed by Kuenssberg if a joint strike could happen in the near future, Cullen said: "I can only speak for the Royal College of Nursing this morning, and what I'm saying is there are no plans in place to coordinate strikes."

Nonetheless, hospital bosses have told how even the vague possibility of a mass walkout involving nurses and doctors has left them full of anxiety over the risk to patients.

Cullen said that the government not doing enough to address inadequate staffing levels and burnt-out doctors and nurses is what's putting patients in danger.

Read more: How much do junior doctors earn? UK salary and pay scale

NHS junior doctors take part in a march and rally in the centre of Birmingham, on the final day of the British Medical Association's 96-hour walkout in a dispute over pay. Picture date: Friday April 14, 2023. (Photo by Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images)
Union leaders warn doctors and nurses are leaving the NHS as they can no longer take it. (Getty Images)

She said: “The risks are there, they're not just there on the day of strike action, the risks within the health service to our patients are growing every single day because we do not have the doctors and the nurses to look after our patients. Patients deserve better, the public of this country deserve better."

Cullen added that nurses are quitting their posts because "they can no longer take the risk and the pressures that this government expects them to operate under".

On Friday, nurses voted 54%-46% to reject the latest 5% pay rise from the government, along with a one-off payment worth between "£1,655 and £3,789".

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Cullen said it would be the best offer that they'd be able to get from the government, but said she will "absolutely support" her members who made it "loud and clear" that it is not fair or reasonable.

She said the one-off payment was "probably a bribe in their eyes" and is not going to fix the "long-term problems in the NHS", which has seen pay falling behind inflation for over a decade.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2023/04/11: A protester holds a placard with a message for Health Secretary Steve Barclay during the demonstration. Thousands of junior doctors staged a protest in Trafalgar Square as they begin their four-day strike demanding full pay restoration. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Health secretary Steve Barclay has urged unions to accept the government's offer. (Getty Images)

In an opinion piece for The Sun, health secretary Steve Barclay warned that fresh nurses strikes would have a "deeply concerning" impact on emergency services and cancer care.

He wrote to Cullen, urging the RCN to accept the deal that is on the table, to which Cullen said: "It's interesting that it's taken the health secretary days to respond to my letter and I get it half-an-hour before coming onto your programme.

"That's not about being disrespectful to me, it's about being disrespectful to over 500,000 nurses I represent."

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Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands told the show how strike action "has not helped" Rishi Sunak fulfil his pledge of reducing record waiting lists in hospitals.

He said: "We know that we're dealing with the waiting list problem as a result of the pandemic, which inevitably led to big delays in the NHS. We're getting to grips with that."

Asked if there would be any new offers before the upcoming nursing strikes later this month, Hands said the government would "wait and see what the other unions have to say" – after NHS workers in the Unison union accepted their pay offer.

He rejected the idea that the health secretary was being dismissive to the RCN, saying: "Steve's door is always open."