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Unions and ministers trade recriminations ahead of biggest NHS strike


The NHS is braced for its biggest strike in recent history on Monday with nurses, ambulance workers and paramedics across England and Wales set to walk out, as the blame game between ministers and unions escalates.

Tens of thousands of nurses backed by the Royal College of Nursing are expected to take part in industrial action across 73 NHS trusts. Nearly 12,000 ambulance workers affiliated with either the GMB or Unite unions will also walk out.

Health unions are calling on the government to re-examine pay recommendations made by the independent pay review body for the current financial year of 2022-23. This saw more than 1mn staff granted a £1,400 pay rise.

Government officials have repeatedly argued that hiking public sector pay risks further worsening inflation. But they have committed to discussing working conditions, wider investment in the NHS and the upcoming 2023-24 financial year pay settlement.

Business secretary Grant Shapps on Sunday voiced concern over the impact of strikes on public safety, warning that patients faced a “postcode lottery” over emergency care.

NHS England has urged the public to call 999 services only in the case of a “medical or mental health emergency”, and warned that patients whose conditions were not life-threatening “may not get an ambulance on strike days”.

According to NHS data, about 27,826 scheduled inpatient elective procedures and outpatient appointments had to be rescheduled because of RCN strikes on January 18 and 19. More than 1,000 inpatient elective procedures and scheduled outpatient appointments were cancelled as a result of ambulance walkouts on January 11.

“We have seen the situation where the Royal College of Nursing very responsibly before the strikes told the NHS ‘This is where we are going to be striking’ and they are able to put the emergency cover in place,” Shapps told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

“Unfortunately we have been seeing a situation with the ambulance unions where they refuse to provide that information,” he continued. “That leaves the Army, who are driving the backups here, in a very difficult position — a postcode lottery when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke when there is a strike on”.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite joins ambulance workers on a picket line: she urged ministers to come to the table and negotiate © Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg

Health unions accused the minister of mischaracterising the situation and lambasted the government for failing to have meaningful discussions over pay.

“The idea that he’s saying that ambulance workers did not do minimum cover in the dispute is an absolute, utter lie,” Unite general secretary Sharon Graham told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.

“I can categorically say to you we are in no talks at any level whatsoever with the government about pay in the NHS, and that is a real abdication of responsibility,” she said, calling on Sunak to “come to the table and negotiate”.

This sentiment was echoed by GMB national secretary Rachel Harrison who said that it had “been almost a month since the government engaged in any meaningful dialogue”.

“The NHS is crumbling . . . The government needs to wake up and talk pay now,” she said.

Health secretary Steve Barclay said strike action would “inevitably cause further delays for patients”, and called on unions to engage with the government on discussions on this coming year’s pay settlement.

“I have held constructive talks with the trade unions on pay and affordability and continue to urge them to call off the strikes,” he continued. “It is time for the trade unions to look forward and engage in a constructive dialogue about the Pay Review Body Process for the coming year.”

Last week, the GMB union and the RCN suspended walkouts in Wales planned for Monday following a pay offer by the Cardiff government. The offer which consists of an extra 3 per cent, backdated to April 2022, has intensified pressure on Sunak’s government to follow suit.

In a letter to Sunak sent over the weekend, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen warned that the UK government looked “increasingly isolated” in its decision not to reopen the pay settlement for 2022-23

“I am urging you to use this weekend to reset your government in the eyes of the public and demonstrate it is on the side of the hardworking, decent taxpayer,” she wrote.



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