Nurses strikes cut short after High Court rules part of it unlawful

The Royal College of Nursing had announced two planned days of strike action, from 8pm on 30 April to 8pm on 2 May,

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2023/02/07: Nurses hold placards in support of fair pay during the demonstration at the picket outside St Thomas' Hospital, as thousands of NHS nurses continue their strikes over pay. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Nurses hold placards in support of fair pay during the demonstration at the picket outside St Thomas' Hospital. (Getty Images)

What's just happened? Part of the planned nurses' strike over the upcoming bank holiday would be unlawful the High Court has ruled, backing the government's bid to have the industrial action planned for 2 May shut down.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had announced two planned days of strike action, from 8pm on 30 April to 8pm on 2 May, however health secretary Steve Barclay said the final day of the strike would not be lawful as it was outside of the union's six-month industrial action mandate.

The six-month mandate was from 12pm on 2 November 2022, with the High Court agreeing with the government that it expires at 12pm on 2 May.

Ahead of the hearing, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen told BBC Radio 4’s Today show: “If nursing is defeated then it is in my mind, and in our nurses’ minds, an even darker day for this government.

“They should really see sense, calm this down and withdraw their position and get in and start negotiating with us.”

The RCN suggested following the ruling that it would comply with the High Court, and clarified the beginning of the planned strike action will still go ahead.

Why are nurses planning to strike?

The RCN announced plans to strike over pay, after rejecting what the government described as a "fair and final offer". The government has offered nurses a 5% pay rise for 2023-24, as well as a lump sum of at least £1,655 that will come as a top-up on last year's pay.

The offer has been accepted by members of the Unison union, which includes ambulance drivers and some nurses, but has been rejected by members of the RCN.

RCN chief Cullen said: "Members have clearly decided and I absolutely believe in them, that this is neither a fair nor a reasonable offer from the government."

Nurses took strike action in March over pay, but voted to strike once again after their demands were not met. Other medical staff including junior doctors have also taken part in walkouts this year over pay and conditions.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 06: A nurse holds a placard as members of RCN (Royal College of Nursing ) strike over demanding fair pay amid a cost of living crisis in London, United Kingdom on February 06, 2023. Strike to be continued between 6 and 7 February for 73 different healthcare organizations. (Photo by Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A nurse holds a placard as members of RCN strike over demanding fair pay. (Getty Images)

What has the government said?

The government took the issue to the High Court after failing to reach an agreement with the RCN, and stating that the final day of the planned industrial action did not fall within the agreed-upon six-month mandate.

After the RCN rejected the government's pay offer, prime minister Rishi Sunak called the 54%-46% rejection "disappointing" and a "very narrow vote".

“Indeed, when you look at the turnout, it’s a minority of members of that union who are voting to strike," he said.

"I think voting to strike with no derogations, given the closeness of the vote, is obviously disappointing and everyone will be concerned about the impact on patient care.

The health secretary said following the High Court ruling: "I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law - but the government could not stand by and let plainly unlawful strike action go ahead.

"Both the NHS and my team tried to resolve this without resorting to legal action."

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 26, 2023: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in London, United Kingdom on April 26, 2023. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak said the RCN vote to reject the government's pay offer was 'disappointing'. (Getty Images)

How did the RCN react to the ruling?

RCN chief Cullen confirmed that the planned strike action would still go ahead but would be cut short in accordance with the ruling.

“Where do we go from here? Well, of course, our nursing staff will not do anything that isn’t legal," she said following the ruling.

“We will continue to have strike action on Sunday evening and again on Monday, but we will not be taking strike action on May 2. Our nurses have carried out very safe, legal action to date. And Steve Barclay can continue to threaten them with their registration.

"He can continue, if he wishes, to drag them through court proceedings. But what he needs to do is get into a negotiating room and start to talk to the nurses of England, sort out this dispute and allow them to get back to their work.”

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)
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) leader Pat Cullen has said the striking nurses will not take any action that has been deemed illegal (Getty Images)