Britain faces its largest ever strike by health workers on Monday as tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walk out in an escalating pay dispute which the health minister said would place further strain on the National Health Service (NHS).
Nurses and ambulance workers have been striking separately on and off since late last year but Monday’s walkout involving both, largely in England, will represent the biggest in the 75-year history of the NHS.
England’s top doctor, Stephen Powis, said strike action this week, which will also see physiotherapists walk out on Thursday, would most probably be the most disruptive so far.
Health workers are demanding a pay rise that reflects the worst inflation in Britain in four decades, while the government says that would be unaffordable and cause more price rises, and in turn, make interest rates and mortgage payments go up.
Around 500,000 workers, many from the public sector, have been staging strikes since last summer, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the disputes and limit disruption to public services such as railways and schools.
Health minister Steve Barclay urged people to continue to access emergency services and attend appointments unless they had been cancelled but underlined there would be disruption.
“Despite contingency measures in place, strikes by ambulance and nursing unions this week will inevitably cause further delays for patients who already face longer waits due to the COVID backlogs,” he said in a statement.
“I have held constructive talks with the trade unions on pay and affordability and continue to urge them to call off the strikes.”
Sharon Graham, leader of the Unite union, told the BBC on Sunday she wanted Sunak to come to the negotiating table. “This government is putting lives at risk,” she said.
The NHS, historically a source of pride for most Britons, is under extreme pressure with millions of patients on waiting lists for operations and thousands each month failing to receive prompt emergency care.
The RCN says a decade of poor pay has contributed to tens of thousands of nurses leaving the profession — 25,000 over just the last year — with the severe staffing shortages impacting patient care.
The RCN initially asked for a pay rise of 5% above inflation and has since said it could meet the government “halfway”, but both sides have failed to reach an agreement despite weeks of talks.
Meanwhile, thousands of ambulance workers represented by the GMB and Unite trade unions are also set to strike on Monday in their own pay dispute. Both unions have announced several more days of industrial action.
Not all ambulance workers will strike at once and emergency calls will be attended to.
In Wales, nurses and some ambulance workers have called off strikes planned for Monday as they review pay offers from the Welsh government.
Sunak said in a TalkTV interview last week he would “love to give the nurses a massive pay rise” but said the government faced tough choices and that it was funding the NHS in other areas such as by providing medical equipment and ambulances.