NHS hospitals will do all they can to ‘minimise harm to patients’ if nurses go on strike, a national health leader has said (Peter Byrne/PA)
10 November 2022

NHS will do all it can to ‘minimise harm’ during nursing strike, says leader

10 November 2022

NHS hospitals will do all they can to “minimise harm to patients” if nurses go on strike, a national health leader has said, adding that industrial action is about more than pay.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents most NHS organisations, said there are national and regional plans to minimise the impact on patients, but admitted operations and appointments will have to be cancelled or postponed.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay will on Thursday hold talks with Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union behind the strikes, as he works to avert the industrial action.

Mr Barclay was willing to discuss how working conditions can be improved but was “not negotiating” on pay, the PA news agency understands, as nurses demand a raise of at least 15%.

Mr Taylor warned that industrial action will be “a challenge” for both 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,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“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.”

He said the RCN has promised to maintain emergency and critical care “but there will be an impact if there is industrial action in terms of cancelled appointments, cancelled procedures, and NHS leaders will do everything we can to minimise that and to ensure that patients are kept informed of what is happening.”

Asked about the current state of nursing in the NHS, Mr Taylor said “we are acutely aware of the fact that health workers take industrial action as a last resort – it’s very rare.”

He said the issue is primarily about pay but “it’s important to understand that, whenever you speak to nurses, they will say pay is part of the challenge but it’s also about workload, about the fact that there are nearly 50,000 nurse vacancies across the NHS.

“Even if there wasn’t any industrial action, we would still have a really big issue about how we recruit, how we retain and how we motivate staff in the NHS.”

The health leader said workers have been “waiting for a very long time” for a properly-costed workforce strategy from the Government.

There have also been “briefings in recent days that there will be a pay freeze or pay cap on the public sector next year – that kind of background is not helpful to these talks.”

Mr Barclay was understood to be eager to discuss improvements to working conditions such as on rosters, but wanted to stick by the NHS pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 raise rather than the 5% above inflation demand from the RCN.

A DHSC source said: “Steve is very much in listening mode, he wants to hear from them about their concerns. He’s very focused on the work force and wants to do anything we possibly can to get more nurses in.”

But on pay, they said: “We are not negotiating because we have accepted the recommendation of the pay review body.”

Patricia Marquis, RCN director for England, told BBC Breakfast that current NHS services were “not safe” and the Government has “failed to listen” to what nursing staff have been saying.

She said there are some services that need to continue during strike action to keep patients safe “and we will agree with employers what those are and which staff should be working”.

She added that employers across most of the UK needed 14 days’ notice of strike action, adding: “What I can say is that we intend to take action certainly before the end of this year.”

Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, was asked on Sky News if she was in favour of the strike.

She said: “I think what we have to remember is… the conditions that have led nurses to this action.

“We completely understand how strongly they feel – below inflation pay awards, rising cost of living… we’ve heard these tales of nurses resorting to food banks, many trusts are setting up school uniform banks, for example, to support nurses and others in the basic costs of living.

“We also have to remember that the NHS has been struggling for a long time in terms of staff shortages and workloads that have really been rocketing, so we understand the circumstances.”

She urged ministers to talk to the unions to reach a resolution. “We have to see the Government come round the table,” she added.

Ms Cullen said on Wednesday night that politicians should “get round the table” and start addressing nurses’ concerns to avoid strike action.

The union boss said members have been “pushed” to the position where striking is their only option, adding that nurses can no longer be “ignored” by ministers.

Industrial action is expected to be held before the end of the year at some of the UK’s biggest hospitals, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ opposite Parliament, the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, University Hospital Wales, and Belfast’s Royal Victoria.

The RCN announced on Wednesday that its members in the majority of NHS employers across the UK have backed industrial action.

During industrial action the health service will turn its attention to treating emergency patients in a “life-preserving care model”, with sources saying some hospitals on strike days will have staffing levels similar to those over Christmas.

Some of the most serious cancer cases could still be treated, while urgent diagnostic procedures and assessments will be staffed if they are needed to gather data on potentially life-threatening conditions or those that could lead to permanent disability.

Other health worker unions including Unison and the GMB will announce the result of strike ballots before the end of the month among staff including ambulance drivers and paramedics, hospital porters and cleaners.

Physiotherapists started voting on Monday over industrial action, while a ballot of midwives opens on Friday.

The unions are protesting over a pay award earlier this year of £1,400 for most NHS workers, with the RCN calling for a rise of 5% above the rate of inflation.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay branded the decision to take industrial action “disappointing”, insisting the RCN’s demands are “out of step” with the economic situation faced by the UK.

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