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UK nurses vote to strike for the first time over pay dispute

Rebecca Goodman
Written By:
Rebecca Goodman

Nurses in the UK have agreed to strike over pay for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union’s 106-year history.

Strike action by some hospital and community teams is expected by the end of the year. Nurses working in emergency care settings such as intensive care units will continue working during strikes.

The majority of nurses across the UK voted for strike action including every service in Scotland and Northern Ireland, all apart from one in Wales, and around half of those in England.

This is the first strike in the RCN’s history. Its members include over 465,000 registered nurses, midwives, health care assistants and nursing students.

Strikes are due to start shortly and the mandate to strike remains in place until May 2023.

‘Enough is enough’

RCN general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “Anger has become action – our members are saying enough is enough. The voice of nursing in the UK is strong and I will make sure it is heard. Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work.

“Ministers must look in the mirror and ask how long they will put nursing staff through this. While we plan our strike action, next week’s Budget is the UK government’s opportunity to signal a new direction with serious investment. Across the country, politicians have the power to stop this now and at any point.”

Cullen said RCN members would ensure patients did not come to harm and emergency and urgent services would continue during strikes. Routine services such as non-emergency operations will be affected.

It comes as a wave of organisations including the rail network, BT, Openreach and Royal Mail have voted for and carried out strike action in the UK.

5% pay rise above inflation

The postal ballot for striking took place between 6 October and 2 November.

It followed the NHS Agenda for Change pay announcements earlier this year, which the RCN said left experienced nurses 20% worse off in real terms compared to a decade ago.

NHS staff in England and Wales were given an average pay rise of 4.75% which is equivalent to £1,400. Those in Scotland had a flat-rate rise of £2,200 and in Northern Ireland no rise has been announced.

The RCN ‘fair pay for nursing’ campaign is calling for a pay rise of 5% above the Retail Prices Index (RPI) rate of inflation, which was 15.4% for September. The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rate of inflation was 10.1% last month.

It said in the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register and poor pay is contributing to shortages, of which there are 47,000 currently in England.

Alongside a pay rise, the RCN is using the campaign to raise awareness of the fact that salaries for nursing staff have consistently fallen below inflation.

It also wants nursing to be seen as an attractive, rewarding profession to tackle the tens of thousands of unfilled nursing posts.

The campaign also wants to promote the training, qualifications, skills, responsibilities and experience demonstrated every day by nursing staff.

Pay rise given despite public sector pay freeze

Health and social care secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “We are all hugely grateful for the hard work and dedication of NHS staff, including nurses, and deeply regret that some union members have voted for industrial action.

“These are challenging times, which is why we accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full and have given over one million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year. This is on top of a 3% pay increase last year when public sector pay was frozen and wider government support with the cost of living.

“Our priority is keeping patients safe during any strikes. The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”

‘We hope that the negotiating parties can reach a compromise’

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health managers, said: “Years of suppressed pay alongside 47,000 vacancies across England and rising demand for healthcare have led to many feeling demoralised and that they are at the end of the road.

“The entire NHS is being hit hard by rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis and with other trade unions also considering industrial action for their members, this feeling of despair is felt from other health professions and the wider public sector too.

“We hope that the negotiating parties can reach a compromise that will both minimise disruption to patient care and benefit frontline staff. The last thing anyone wants is a ‘war of attrition’ playing out over many months.”