Pat Cullen: 'tenacious' leader of UK's striking nursing union

In the space of just a few months, Pat Cullen has become the public face of Britain's nurses, whose historic strike has laid bare a health service on its knees.

Cullen, 58, comes from a family of nurses: four of her five sisters are all in the profession and she admits that nursing is "in my blood".

The softly spoken Northern Irishwoman is not willing to budge on her union's demands and warns the government that she is "tenacious".

"When I believe in something I'll follow it through to the bitter end," she told The Guardian newspaper.

Wes Streeting, an opposition Labour lawmaker in charge of health policy, called her a "tough negotiator".

A nurse for 41 years, Cullen became the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union and professional body in 2021.

She represents its membership of nearly 450,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants -- the largest such union in the world.

Under her leadership, the members voted for a historic strike: for the first time since the RCN was founded 106 years ago, they stopped work on December 15 and 20.

As the Conservative government stuck to its view that the pay rises they are asking for are unaffordable, the nurses went back on strike on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Further industrial action is planned on February 6 and 7.

Cullen says they have no choice: due to the austerity policies of Conservative governments, nurses' pay has fallen nearly 20 percent in real terms in the last 10 years.

The RCN wants a pay increase of around 19 percent, well above inflation which stands at 10.5 percent, to offset the decrease.

- Support -

Cullen's mood was far from celebratory on the first day of December's strike.

"This is a tragic day for nursing, it's a tragic day for patients," she said at a picket outside a hospital.

Ambulance drivers, railway workers and teachers have also gone on strike over pay disputes, causing the kind of mass disruption not seen in Britain for decades.

But what's different about the nurses' strike is the degree of public support for their cause.

Almost two-thirds of British people support it, according to a poll published January 17.

The public retains a strong sense of loyalty to the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) and feels grateful to nurses for their care during the pandemic.

Cullen is playing an active role getting the nurses' position across.

She regularly tours television studios to describe exhausting daily rounds, tens of thousands of unfilled posts and how some nurses have had to resort to using food banks.

"This is our time to speak up and have our voice heard on behalf of our patients," she stressed.

- Family history -

For Cullen, nursing is more than a calling: it's also a family affair. Born to a farming family, she is the youngest of seven siblings, six of whom are girls.

Her eldest sister, who is 17 years older, was the first to qualify.

"I remember her coming home in her beautiful nurse's uniform talking passionately to us as a young family about what she'd been doing on her last shift", Cullen told The Guardian.

To her great regret, her two children have chosen other paths, but her husband works as a GP in Northern Ireland.

Cullen started work as a mental health nurse.

She embarked on her first fight with the management at a psychiatric hospital in Antrim in Northern Ireland in 1983.

She wrote to the management to complain about its "heartless policy" of taking personal items away from patients to punish them for difficult behaviour.

"I felt it was totally unfair. These people were ill... Patients on the wards couldn't cope without their own personal belongings," she recalled.

She won the battle.

Cullen had always been a member of the RCN, but in 2019, she became director of the RCN in Northern Ireland.

After seven months, she led a three-day strike by nurses demanding a pay increase. This was the first such action since the union's creation.

She won that battle, too.

As Rishi Sunak's government will be well aware, Cullen isn't one to give up without a fight.