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Tis' the season to strike

By Will Neale
20 December 2022
Public Affairs

By William Neale

Today, 10,000 nurses working for the NHS have taken to industrial action in a dispute over pay joining a huge number of other public sector workers set to strike over the Christmas period. The nursing regulator, the Royal College on Nursing is calling for a 19% payrise for nursing staff after claims that understaffing and low pay are putting patients at risk. 

Government Minister Will Quince, has urged the public to 'avoid risky activities' when risky as Ambulance staff and paramedics are set to strike tomorrow and thousands of already delayed appointments and operations are cancelled. A deal remains a distant prospect, with both sides hunkering down neither showing any sign of compromise.

Speaking on Sunday with Laure Kuenssberg, Minister for the Cabinet Office Oliver Dowden reiterated the Government's position that NHS pay is set by the independent NHS Pay ReviewBody which recommended a £1,400 pay award for most NHS nurses, equivalent to a 4.75% rise. The Government has described the Royal College of Nursing's demands as 'unaffordable' stating that if nurses were awarded a 19% pay rise alongside other public sector workers, this would cost £28bn, or £1000 per household.

Last November, a formal remit letter from the then health secretary Sajid Javid warning the Pay Review Body that this year's pay deal would need to balance NHS salaries with protection of frontline service budgets.

Today, the RCN issued an ultimatum to the Government. If the government fails to respond within 48 hours of today’s strike ending, the RCN will announce further strike dates for January 2023.In response, the Prime Minister has suggested the unions may receive a more generous offer in 2023/4 if they call of any future strikes.

Concerningly for the Government, polling from YouGov shows that 60% of the public are backing the nurses strike, making it the most popular of all the current industrial action. Despite this, the strikes were not discussed at todays Cabinet, but rather the upcoming coronation of King Charles. The Government is battling with a trade-off both politically and financially. Both Labour and the Government accept a 19% figure would not be financially feasible, despite Labour failing to offer a concrete figure. The defiant stance from the Labour leadership will no doubt sour relations with left wing MPs and the trade unions that they party largely relies on for funding.

Indeed, both the Labour and Conservative backbenches are growing restless with the damage caused both the patients and the NHS but also their own reputations. A number of Labour MPs have joined picket lines today despite Keir Starmer imposing a frontbench ban on attendance, whilst a number of prominent Conservatives have called for a middle ground between the 4% pay rise offered by the Government and the 19% requested by the RCN.

Conservative MPs will be acutely aware of the power of the NHS to sway public opinion, especially post pandemic. Tory backbenchers find themselves once againcaught in the challenging position of being blamed for a highly emotive issue over which they have very littleinfluence or control.