Tens of thousands of British nurses will go on strike for the first time over demands for better pay, their union said on Wednesday, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during an economic crisis.
Nurses at most state-owned National Health Service (NHS) employers across the UK have voted to strike, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said, in a move that threatens to cause major disruption to You already have a health system.
The RCN, which has more than 300,000 members, said industrial action would begin before the end of the year after the first strike vote in its 106-year history.
“Anger has turned to action – our members say enough is enough,” RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said in a statement. “This action will be for both patients and nurses. Standards are falling too low.”
NHS nurses have seen their pay cut by up to 20% in real terms over the past 10 years, the RCN has said. The union is asking for a 5% wage increase above inflation.
The UK has seen a wave of industrial unrest this year across a range of professions as pay rises fail to keep up with 10% inflation.
Sunak’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday that the government wanted to strike a balance between the “crucial role” nurses play and their fiscal challenges.
The RCN’s demands would mean combined pay rises at a cost of £9 billion ($10.25 billion) which “simply cannot be delivered”, the spokesman said, adding that contingency plans were in place for any ” impact on staff”.
The strike will come as the NHS faces its worst ever staffing crisis while still recovering from the impact on services during the Covid pandemic.
The much-loved British institution, which has provided free healthcare at the point of use since 1948, now deals with a record 7 million patients on waiting lists for hospital treatment. Accident and emergency departments are also under strain.
“We are all very grateful for the hard work and dedication of NHS staff, including nurses, and deeply regret that some union members have voted in favor of industrial action,” Health Minister Steve Barclay said.
“Our priority is to keep patients safe during any strike. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimize disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”
Sunak has already faced pressure on the issue since becoming prime minister two weeks ago, when he was confronted by an elderly patient during a hospital visit who told him he needed to “try harder ” with the nurses’ salary.
Cullen called for “serious investment” from the government as it prepares to announce a budget next week aimed at repairing the country’s public finances.