Nurses across much of the UK launched a historic strike on Thursday, as they walked out of hospitals and on picket lines after several years of falling wages and declining standards that left the country’s nationalized healthcare system in a state of crisis.
As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – the UK’s largest nurses’ union – are taking action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the latest and most unprecedented wave of strikes to hit Britain this winter. has flooded. It is the largest strike in the RCN’s 106-year history.
But it comes after several years of hardship for workers at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), a respected but beleaguered institution strained by staff shortages, skyrocketing demand and tight funding.
“I went into nursing to care for patients, and over the years my ability to provide the level of care my patients deserve has been compromised,” said Andrea Mackay, who spent seven years as a nurse at a hospital in the south west of England. CNN on her reasons for striking Thursday.
“The reality is that nurses all over the UK walk into understaffed hospitals every day,” Mackay said. “The NHS has been running on nurses’ compassion and goodwill for years… It’s unsustainable.”
“It’s about paying staff what they’re worth so they can pay the bills,” Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse preparing to join the strike, told CNN, adding that the staffing pressure is making the emergency department where she regularly works, has paralyzed. of my worst shifts I was the sole nurse of 28 sick children…it’s not safe and we can’t provide the care these children sometimes need,” she said.
Pamela Jones, on the picket line outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, told PA Media: “I am getting up today because I have been breastfeeding for 32 years; within those 32 years the changes have been astronomical.
“I really feel sorry for the young girls who are now trying to get into the profession, they have to pay for their education. The public needs to understand the pressure everyone is under. You just have to come to the ER and see the queues, there are no beds.
“We want to save our NHS, we don’t want it to disappear, and I think this is the way forward, it’s the only way we can get our point across. We don’t want to be here. I was really torn about going on strike because it’s not something I ever thought I’d ever have to do in my lifetime, yet the government forced us to do this.
She added: “I hope the government is listening because none of us want to be here, we just want a fair pay rise.”
The strike will take place over two days – Thursday and next Tuesday – and not every NHS Trust will take part. But it marks one of the most dramatic uses of union action in the NHS’s 74-year history, and has intensified debate over the state of Britain’s public services.
The RCN is calling for a 5% wage increase above retail inflation, which current figures equate to a 19% increase, and asks the government to fill a record number of vacancies, which it says puts patient safety at risk brings. Steve Barclay, the UK’s health minister, told CNN in a statement earlier this week that their demand is “not affordable”.
The standoff follows years of disputes over the pay levels of NHS workers. Nurses’ pay fell by 1.2% each year between 2010 and 2017 when inflation was taken into account, according to the Health Foundation, a UK charity campaigning for better health and healthcare. For the first three of those years, their wages were frozen.
Meanwhile, the number of patients awaiting care has exploded, a long-standing trend exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to the British Medical Association, a record 7.2 million people in England – more than one in eight people – are currently waiting for treatment. Seven years ago that was still 3.3 million.
“I work with some great[nurses]who have come in early, left late, worked through breaks and lunches, agreed to come on their days off for overtime shift to make sure their patients are kept as safe as possible ,” Mackay told CNN.
“I don’t have all the answers and I understand there is a limit to the money available, but unless the government prioritizes health, patient safety and strengthening the workforce, the NHS will collapse,” she said.
Free to the point of care, the NHS is a central part of Britain’s national psyche and the third tier of the country’s politics. During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of Britons stood outside their homes to applaud NHS workers, in a weekly ritual championed by the government.
But that has since been criticized as an empty gesture by disgruntled workers, who say the government’s wage offers to staff don’t represent the same spirit.
Earlier this year, the RCN rejected a government offer to raise nurses’ salaries by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year, representing an average increase of 4.3%, well below the rate of inflation.
“I have nursed patients who can remember life before the NHS. They know how precious it is because they’ve seen what happened before,” Mackay said.
Labor leader Keir Starmer attacked Rishi Sunak during the strike during the prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, telling him that “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he stopped the strike by striking a deal with the RCN.
The union action was “a sign of shame for this administration,” Starmer said.
Most of the nurses taking part in the action on Thursday will strike for the first time in their lives. But they are joining British public service workers who are being laid off and demanding higher wages and working conditions, fueling a growing wave of strikes the likes of which have not been seen in the UK for decades.
Workers on Britain’s railways, buses, motorways and borders are taking industrial action this month, essentially bringing various forms of travel to a standstill. Teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers and paramedics will all go on strike in December.
It has left the government struggling to respond. Members of the British armed forces were trained to drive ambulances and engage in firefights in the event of strike action, ministers said earlier this month. On Tuesday, the police federation said it opposed a request to allow police officers to drive ambulances.
And unions have threatened more action in the new year, when a cost-of-living crisis that has plagued Britain in recent months is expected to worsen.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a total of 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the most recent month for which figures are available. That’s the highest number for any month since 2011.
The impact of those strikes has led sections of the British media to reminisce about the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978 and 1979, when demonstrations brought the UK to a standstill – although this year’s level of industrial action represents a fraction of those months , with the loss of several million working days.
Sunak has been accused by opposition parties of refusing to negotiate with the unions in good faith and not doing enough to prevent strikes.
But the ongoing disputes are a thorny issue for both major parties. Labor – a party with strong historical links to trade unions – is walking on a tightrope, urging the government to do more, but explicitly refusing to support the picketers’ demands.