“People don’t want to be millionaires, they just want a decent quality of life”, said Renza, as she waved her placard in acknowledgement of support from passing motorists outside. She was one of thirty Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members forming a picket line outside Heywood Hospital in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.
This was part of strike action that saw nurses from half of England’s hospitals and community health services walk out in an ongoing dispute over wages and working conditions.
The dispute continues
The 28-hour strike was called ahead of a meeting between the RCN, NHS managers and Health Secretary Steve Barclay to discuss a 5% pay offer tabled by the government.
Speaking to the BBC, the health secretary said the strike action was “premature”, and that it would “put more pressure on the NHS and will be incredibly disruptive for patients.”
The strike held over the Early May Bank Holiday weekend was set to continue until the Tuesday but was cut short after a judge ruled that the 2 of May strike date fell outside the six-month mandate provided by a ballot of union members.
Spirits at the Heywood picket line were high, despite persistent drizzle and most of the cars entering the hospital grounds or passing down the road outside honked their horns in support. Several drivers even stopped to pass packets of biscuits and cakes to the strikers.
Prior to the strike taking place NHS bosses spoke about the pressures that it would place on services. Julian Hartley from NHS Providers told Yahoo News that industrial action had “resulted in more than 531,000 appointments and procedures being rescheduled – not just in hospitals but across mental health and community services too.”
He added: “Trust leaders and staff will do everything they can to minimise disruption and keep patients safe but it’s piling on the pressure on an overstretched NHS now into its sixth consecutive month of industrial action.”
RCN members will be re-balloted later this month on further strike action, General Secretary Pat Cullen told the Independent: “The dispute will end when our government does the decent thing for nurses, does the decent thing for the people of England and does the decent thing for the NHS. Until then our nursing staff will continue to stand on picket lines, losing pay and making sure that their voices are heard for their patients.”
Patient safety matters as much as pay
Strikers at Heywood echoed Cullen’s point that the strikes were about patient safety as much as pay, something that is being impacted by more than a decade of cuts to services.
One nurse, who asked not to be named said: “We are losing staff because people are walking away due to the pressure they are facing”, adding this could only have a negative impact on patient care.
She went on to say the pay rise offered by the government would “hardly help meet a few little bills, never mind the real costs people are facing”.
Another nurse, who works in community care said she had told her patients she was “sorry” that she wouldn’t be there over the bank holiday weekend but taking action was “something we believe matters”, and that they were “not just fighting for fair pay now, we are fighting for the next generation of nurses coming out of training”.
In a press statement given as the day of action ended Cullen said: “Deep concerns over patient safety should be aired every day, not only on the day of a strike.
“Today was a reminder that our action is always safe and has a belief in safe patient care at its core. Nursing staff are fighting for a stronger NHS that has enough nurses – a health service able to fill the tens of thousands of vacant jobs.
“Tuesday’s meeting with Steve Barclay appears a foregone conclusion. The deal being accepted by others does not alter the clear fact that nursing staff, as the largest part of the NHS workforce, remain in dispute with the government over unfair pay and unsafe staffing.”
RCN remains united
This prediction was proved correct when the pay offer tabled by the government was accepted by UNISON, GMB and other unions representing health workers.
In a letter to Steve Barclay, Cullen said that while she “entirely respected” the decision reached by other unions she would continue to fight for her members saying “Nursing is the largest part of the NHS workforce and they require an offer that matches their true value.”