'Biggest strike in NHS history' feared, as health leaders plan for day when nurses and ambulance workers walk out

19 January 2023, 07:04

Ambulance workers and nurses are set to strike on the same day in February
Ambulance workers and nurses are set to strike on the same day in February. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

Health leaders are planning for the possible "biggest day of industrial action the NHS has ever seen" next month, amid fears that nurses and ambulance staff could strike on the same day.

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Both groups have staged walkouts over pay disputes with the government amid high inflation, and both have recently said they will take industrial action again.

Some 10,000 ambulance workers in the GMB union said on Wednesday that they would strike on February 6, February 20, March 6 and March 20.

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That includes paramedics, emergency care assistants and call handlers.

Meanwhile nurses represented by the Royal College of Nursing have also announced walkouts on February 6 and February 7.

Nurses and healthcare workers assemble outside UCH for a NHS solidarity march on Wednesday
Nurses and healthcare workers assemble outside UCH for a NHS solidarity march on Wednesday. Picture: Getty

February 6 will mark the first time ambulance workers and nurses have gone on strike on the same day, and is likely to cause mass disruption in the health service.

Commenting on the combined strike action, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said: "Trusts have been warning for months that coordinated strikes were a possibility if the government and unions failed to reach an early agreement on this year's pay award.

"The prospect of ambulance workers and nurses striking on the same day is a huge concern. It could be the biggest day of industrial action the NHS has ever seen.

"Nobody in the NHS wants more strikes, including staff joining picket lines.

Nurses and their supporters gather outside Downing Street
Nurses and their supporters gather outside Downing Street. Picture: Getty

"Trust leaders understand why overstretched staff have reached this point amid chronic staff shortages and ever-growing demand and pressure.

"We need ministers to get round the table with the unions urgently to deal with the key issue of pay for this financial year, otherwise there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added: "This escalation takes us deeper in to the situation NHS leaders have been warning against - a war of attrition between the government and unions spanning several months at a time when NHS services are seeing unprecedented pressures.

"Health leaders will now be intensifying plans and preparations for the combined strike of nurses and ambulance workers next month, which will pose a more significant challenge to services than the industrial action we have seen to date."

Ex-NHS boss says 'the government can't win' the NHS dispute

Ministers have warned that pay rises in line with inflation could cause be a factor in increasing inflation, rather than a way out of the crisis.

And the government has previously said that NHS salaries are a matter for an independent pay review.

Speaking to broadcasters at a police station in London on Wednesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: "We're very keen to have a constructive dialogue, not just with the nurses' union, but with unions across the public sector.

"At the beginning of the year, the government wrote individually to all public sector unions inviting them in to have talks with their relevant ministers.

NHS protesters
NHS protesters. Picture: Getty

"I'm pleased to say that those talks are ongoing and we're keen to find a constructive way forward and bring these strikes to an end.

"Of course I understand the impact they're having on people's lives and I understand why people are frustrated.

"But we do also need to make sure that those conversations are based on what's reasonable, what's responsible for the country as we tackle inflation, which is good for everybody if we can get that down as quickly as possible, but also what's affordable."

He added: "As we tackle inflation, we need to be responsible with public sector pay settlements, we have to think about what's reasonable but also what is affordable for the country.

This passionate caller says if nurses continue the strikes, it will 'bring the country to a halt'

"The Government and all ministers are sitting down, not just with the nurses' union, but with all unions to have constructive dialogue and find a way through and we're committed to making sure that we can also reduce the burden of the cost of living on people."

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Steve Barclay ruled out a 10% pay rise for nurses, insisting it was "not affordable".

"Well 10% is not affordable, it would be an extra £3.6 billion a year and obviously that would take money away from patient services, essential services that we need to invest in given the backlogs from the pandemic," he said on a visit to Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north-west London.

Both unions have asked for above-inflation rises. The Government has given NHS staff an average of 4.75%, with everyone guaranteed at least £1,400.

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