Second round of nurse strikes ‘unjustifiable and unnecessary’, says health minister

With 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) staging their second walkout across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday, minister for health and secondary care Will Quince has called the action “unjustifiable and unnecessary”.

He said: “My message to the unions is clear, these strikes are unjustifiable and unnecessary. The government accepts the pay review body’s recommendation in full, if strikes are to go ahead then it is important that patient safety is the priority for the unions as it is for the government”.

Looking ahead to planned industrial action by ambulance workers on Wednesday, Mr Quince added: “[Unions have] got to be ensuring that the most serious call-outs for ambulances … are covered on strike day”. Union officials have said that category 2 incidents, such as strokes or cases of serious chest pain, will be attended to during industrial action.

Quince’s comments come as thousands of nurses are staging a second walkout with the RCN continuing their call for a 19.2% pay rise. This follows an initial day of industrial action on 15 December, the RCN’s biggest in its history.

Around a quarter of hospitals and community teams in England are taking part in the strike, alongside all trusts in Northern Ireland and all but one health board in Wales.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Quince said that his and health secretary Steve Barclay’s doors “are open when it comes to discussing issues around patient safety and working conditions for staff”.

“What we are not willing to negotiate is reopening the pay for this year, which is part of the independent pay review body recommendations, which the government accepted in full”, he added.

Mr Quince said pay review bodies were now looking at pay recommendations for next year, from April.

The RCN’s general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “For many of us, this is our first time striking and our emotions are really mixed. The NHS is in crisis, the nursing profession can’t take any more, our loved ones are already suffering.

“It is not unreasonable to demand better. This is not something that can wait. We are committed to our patients and always will be”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4‘s “Today” programme, Ms Cullen confirmed that if there is not a change in approach from the government the RCN, “[will have] no option but to continue strikes into January”.

Nurse strikes in Scotland were called off last week after a pay offer was made by Holyrood, the Scottish parliament. 

Ahead of the strikes today, Mr Barclay said: “The RCN’s demands are unaffordable during these challenging times and would take money away from frontline services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic.

“I’m open to engaging with the unions on how to make the NHS a better place to work”.