Health Secretary hails 'constructive' talks with nursing union in eleventh hour bid to halt strikes which could last six months

10 November 2022, 11:31 | Updated: 10 November 2022, 13:59

Steve Barclay will meet with union bosses
Steve Barclay will meet with union bosses. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Health Secretary Steve Barclay hailed "constructive" talks with union bosses as the NHS faces a mass walkout which could last up to six months.

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Mr Barclay met Pat Cullen, the boss of the Royal College of Nursing, in the hope of thrashing out a deal to avert historic industrial action which is set to hit before Christmas.

This afternoon Mr Barclay tweeted: 'Constructive meeting with the RCN covering a number of topics. Nurses do an incredible job & I regret some union members have voted for strikes. My priority is to keep patients safe and minimise disruption - my door is open & we have agreed to meet again shortly.'

The strikes could last until May, leaving hospitals stripping down care to the essentials with staffing levels comparable to the Christmas period.

More than 300,000 members were balloted on whether they backed the unprecedented strike action, the Royal College of Nursing's (RCN) first UK-wide vote in its 106 year existence.

The union warned strikes will start before Christmas and action could carry on until May next year.

The NHS will focus on emergency patients as hospitals are left with staffing levels similar to the Christmas period.

Serious cancer cases could still be treated and urgent procedures will go ahead if data is needed on life-threatening or potentially disabling conditions.

Mr Barclay is due to meet with the RCN on Thursday amid fears about the effect of strikes over the colder months, when flu starts to spread – with other illnesses like Covid also in the mix.

Read more: Hundreds of thousands of nurses to go on strike at the end of the year over pay dispute

NHS nurse explains why they are 'burnt out'

He called their decision to strike "disappointing" while RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said politicians should "get round the table".

A senior NHS official has said operations and appointments will need to be called off or delayed.

NHS Confederation head Matthew Taylor said: "Clearly industrial action is a challenge for the health service and NHS leaders.

"We're already coping with the gap that exists between the demand that is currently on the health service from the public. We've got to meet that demand, and we all know that we are heading into what already is a very difficult winter.

Read more: 'I'm at breaking point': Nurses share why they're striking ahead of walkout

"Then we add industrial action into that and it's going to be an extremely difficult job.

"The priority will be to try to minimise patient harm."

Nurses across 100 trusts voted for the action, including at specialist cancer hospitals like Royal Marsden in London, or major facilities like Guy's Hospital in South London.

They are angry that the Government will not match its pay rise demands. Ministers characterise the request as the equivalent of 17% per nurse to the tune of £9bn overall, while the RCN says it wants 5% rises due to inflation.

Physiotherapists and midwives will also vote over strike action in the coming days, while ambulance drivers, paramedics and hospital support staff are also being consulted by Unison and GMB.