The health secretary has applied to the High Court in an attempt to stop the latest strike action planned by the Royal College of Nursing.
The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) planned strike action, involving tens of thousands of nurses, is due to take place from 8 pm on Sunday night until 8 pm on Tuesday 2 May.
The action will see nurses in emergency departments, intensive care and cancer wards down tools for the first time.
But Steve Barclay, the health secretary, has written to RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, saying the union’s current six-month strike mandate runs out at midnight on 1 May.
The formal legal challenge marks an extraordinary escalation of the dispute between the RCN and the government. It comes after RCN members voted to reject the UK government’s latest NHS pay offer by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, with a turnout of 61% of eligible members.
In a letter to Ms Cullen, Mr Barclay says: “My team said to yours on Saturday that if you called off Tuesday’s strike and would commit to appropriate derogations over the weekend to protect patient safety, then we would not need to go to Court. Given that you have chosen not to do so, I intend to apply to the High Court to declare the action you have planned for Tuesday 2 May unlawful.
“I should note that, while you have not called off the strike action planned for Tuesday 2 May, I do welcome the discussions between NHS England and the RCN about ensuring patient safety in the absence of pre-emptive derogations, like those agreed by the RCN in relation to previous industrial action. I hope those discussions continue to be fruitful and productive”.
“I therefore regretfully provided notice of my intent to pursue legal action with a view to protecting patients, NHS workers and RCN members whilst continuing to seek a way to resolve this through official channels”, he added.
Ms Cullen has said that such action is “wrong and indefensible” but “the threat sadly became a reality”.
In an email to members working for the NHS in England, she added: “The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them – including in court. It’s so wrong for the government to use taxpayers’ money to drag our profession through the courts. We’re determined to show that the nursing profession is strong and determined and defend our members’ right to strike.”
In a statement released after the news broke, Mr Barclay said he had been “left with no choice but to proceed with legal action”.
He added: “I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law – but the government cannot stand by and let a plainly unlawful strike action go ahead nor ignore the request of NHS Employers.
“We must also protect nurses by ensuring they are not asked to take part in an unlawful strike”.