A union boss said “disruption” within healthcare is inevitable if strikes voted for by nursing staff go ahead – as she urged the Government to change its stance on pay.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen said she was “disappointed” in the Health Secretary’s response after Steve Barclay expressed dismay at Wednesday’s ballot result.
The RCN said industrial action will take place across the UK’s NHS trusts and health boards that have met the legal requirements following the first statutory national vote for strikes in the union’s 106-year history.
Ms Cullen said members can no longer be “ignored” by ministers – but said the Government has a chance to prevent the fallout by addressing nurses’ pay.
Exhausted and underpaid staff have tried every other way to get the Government to listen, making the action necessary, she said.
“There’s never a right time to push nurses to the position they’ve been pushed to today,” Ms Cullen said.
“At the end of the day, if nurses don’t speak up for patients, who will? We’ve tried every other option to get Governments right across the UK to listen to nurses.”
Ms Cullen said the union will need to decide on its next steps in relation to planning the industrial action, which is expected to be held at some of the country’s biggest hospitals before the end of the year.
Asked what can be expected from the strikes and the likely impact on patient care, Ms Cullen said the action will be managed “safely and effectively” but will inevitably involve “disruption”.
“From here we will have to make decisions about our next steps in relation to strike action,” she said.
“We don’t intend to place any patient at further risk during the strike. We will manage that safely and effectively.
“There has to be disruption during a strike but I keep going back to saying: each Government has an opportunity now to draw back from where we are and start to listen to the profession. They’ve placed us here but they can also remove us from it.
“It’s now time to get round the table and start to realistically address the issues in the profession and the issues in the health service.”
Responding to Mr Barclay’s description of the ballot result as “disappointing”, she said: “There’s no one more disappointed in the Health Secretary than the nursing staff that have been pushed to the position they’ve been to today and that is to have to ballot for strike action.”
She added: “I’m disappointed with his response. I think he needs to really seriously consider what has happened today. He can’t ignore those hundreds of thousands of nurses and it will be very, very disappointing for each and every one of the nursing staff that voted today if he turns his back – or any Government turns their back – on nursing staff now.”
The union leader also rejected the Prime Minister’s claim – made during his first PMQs – that nurses were offered “very strong” pay increases while he was Chancellor.
“I would ask any politician to walk in the shoes of any of our members any day of the week,” she said.
“Come and try and live on their wage. Come and try and look after their families and pay their bills and to actually not have to worry about where their next few pounds is going to come from.
“I don’t think any politician could do that.”
Describing the grim conditions currently faced by many staff, Ms Cullen said nurses often finish 14-hour shifts unable to sleep due to the “awful dread” of leaving care undone on heavily under-staffed wards.
“It’s the shortage of staffing that really plays on their mind… Thinking about the care they’ve left undone behind – not because they’ve walked away but because there’s just not enough hours in the day to do it and not enough nurses there to be able to provide that care,” she said.
“That’s an awful dread for nurses. When they go home, they’re saying they can’t switch off, they can’t sleep and before they know it they’re back in for another 12 to 14-hour shift the next day and facing it all over again.
“It has to end.”