Nurses have gone on strike on Thursday in the largest action of its kind in NHS history.
The strike involves staff in about a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England, all health boards in Northern Ireland and all but one in Wales.
London hospital trusts where nurses are striking are Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. Nurses will also walkout at NHS North Central London ICB. Nurses across a total of 63 trusts are striking across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A handful of nurses were already gathered on the picket line outside St Thomas' Hospital in Westminster, central London in the dark and cold ahead of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) strike starting at 8am.
RCN members also chanted “fair pay for nurses” outside Great Ormond Street Hospital in Bloomsbury.
Some were wearing white RCN vests with the slogan “The Voice of Nursing", while others clutch placards with messages such as "It's time to pay nursing staff a fair wage".
RCN chief executive Pat Cullen told some of the assembled union members: “I want to thank you so much for what you are doing - you're just amazing."
The union have demanded a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation, claiming the Government’s current offer of around 3 per cent is insufficient to cope with the rising cost of living. However, Ms Cullen has indicated that she would accept a lower offer and that scheduled industrial action would be called off if Health Secretary Steve Barclay agrees to discussions over pay.
Britain faces a deepening winter of discontent with rail workers, NHS staff and Border Force employees set to take industrial action throughout the festive period.
The NHS is currently under severe pressure with a record 7.2 million people waiting for routine treatment, record waits for ambulances and delays in A&E as hospitals struggle to discharge patients. Ambulance workers are also set to strike across England on December 21.
Speaking on Thursday morning, Ms Cullen said that “hundreds of nurses” were leaving the profession every day as a result of pay and working conditions.
“This is a tragic day for nurses and a tragic day for patients,” she told the BBC. “It’s a tragic day for the people of society and for our NHS”.
She claimed that there was “nothing independent” about the pay review body which recommended a 3 per cent pay rise for NHS staff to ministers last year.
“It might be accepted by the Government, it’s not accepted by the Royal College of Nursing.”
Exact strike times for NHS trusts taking part vary but staff will strike for about 12 hours from around 7.30am. Staff are due to walkout again on Tuesday, December 20.
Staff will continue to provide “life-preserving” and some urgent care but routine surgery and other planned treatment is likely to be disrupted.
Professor Tim Orchard, chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, warned that some surgery would have to be postponed by as long as six weeks.
He said: “Our focus has been making sure we continue to provide safe and high-quality care, while also ensuring our nurses and healthcare assistants are able to exercise their right to take industrial action if they wish to do so.
“Working closely with the RCN local strike committee, our teams have developed detailed contingency plans. Our A&E and inpatient services will be fully operational and we expect to be able to continue with our time-critical cancer care.
“But we have had to postpone much of our other planned care or, where possible, move to virtual appointments. We expect that patients who have had their appointment or surgery postponed will be able to be rescheduled for the end of January.”
In a letter to NHS leaders, Danny Mortimer, head of NHS Employers, which acts on behalf of NHS trusts, said “real concerns remain” about levels of cover for patients during the strike, with “cancer services a particular area of worry.”
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said staff had been given no choice but to press ahead after ministers refused to reopen pay talks.
Health minister Maria Caulfield on Monday dismissed the RCN’s pay demand as “unrealistic”, saying: “We have to have a balance for everyone.”
When it submitted the five percent figure to the independent pay review body in March, inflation was running at 7.5 percent. But inflation has since soared, with RPI standing at 14.2 percent in September.
RCN chief executive, Pat Cullen, has accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “belligerence” after he refused to discuss the issue of pay.
Mr Barclay has repeatedly said the Government is sticking to the recommendations of the independent pay review body, which recommended nurses get a pay rise of around £1,400.
Speaking ahead of the first strike day, Ms Cullen, said: “Nurses are not relishing this, we are acting with a very heavy heart. It has been a difficult decision taken by hundreds of thousands who begin to remove their labour from tomorrow in a bid to be heard, recognised and valued.
“It is a tragic first for nursing, the RCN and the NHS. Nursing staff on picket lines is a sign of failure on the part of governments.
“Our commitment to patients and safe care means that vital services are kept running. The scaremongering we have seen did upset some but also demonstrated the disrespect afforded to nurses for raising their voice. My plea to patients is to know that this strike is for you too – it’s about waiting lists, treatments that are cancelled year-round and the very future of the NHS.”
In his letter to NHS leaders, Mr Mortimer said some aspects of talks with the RCN had been disappointing and warned that “unless the Government indicates a willingness to negotiate on pay-related matters, further strike dates will be announced by the RCN for January 2023 and beyond”.
The letter, dated Wednesday December 14, said: “To be clear - real concerns remain.
“There are areas where we are disappointed that we have not been able to make more progress with the RCN, with the limited national derogations for cancer services a particular area of worry.”
On future strikes, Mr Mortimer said that unless the Government moved on pay, “it is likely that these strikes will be for a longer time period on each occasion and will cover a greater number of organisations in England”.
“It is also likely that the position reached yesterday on derogations will be altered and reduced further. Re-balloting is also likely,” he added.
Derogations relates to the areas of care that nurses agree they will cover during a strike.
The RCN has said it will still staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care.
Some areas of mental health and learning disability and autism services are also exempt, while trusts have been told they can request staffing for specific clinical needs.
Nurses and NHS workers from the campaign group NHS Workers Say No, and Unite's Guys and St Thomas Hospital Union branch, hold a socially distanced protest outside Downing Street