Government legislation aimed at limiting disruption from industrial action will ‘silence’ nursing staff and their concerns for patient safety, the Royal College of Nursing has (RCN) warned.
In a strongly worded response to a government consultation on maintaining minimum service levels in hospitals during strikes, the RCN said it had been ‘misled’ by ministers about how the Strike (Minimum Service Levels) Act would be applied to the nursing profession, and described the law – which received royal assent on 20 July 2023 – as ‘draconian’.
The legislation makes provision for the government to set minimum service levels in several public sectors – including health, transport, fire and rescue and education – during strike action.
And according to the RCN, it would see nursing staff forced to work during strike action or face the sack.
Enforcing the law could make hospital wards more safely staffed on strike days than non-strike days, the RCN said, with more than 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England alone and one nurse often responsible for up to 15 patients at a time.
In January, MP Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, said that the bill was not aimed at preventing nursing staff from going on strike and insisted that ‘it was wrong to suggest so’.
She also expressed ‘great confidence’ in minimum service levels that the RCN had put in place during strike action.
However, Professor Nicola Ranger, RCN chief nurse, said: ‘Ministers blatantly misled nursing staff about how this legislation would impact them.
‘We will campaign against this law – and all other anti-strike measures announced by the government – and lobby for the act to be repealed in its entirety.’
The RCN has argued that the law is discriminatory. Because nursing is a 90% female profession, the legislation being applied to nurses ‘marks a gendered attack on freedom of women to speak out’, it said.
The union also believes overseas nursing staff, who represent almost one-fifth of the nursing workforce, will be disproportionately impacted by the new law, putting them at risk of losing their visa and UK residency if they take strike action.
In addition, the college also warned it would prevent nurses from speaking out about any concerns they have for patient safety.
Joanne Galbraith-Marten, RCN director of legal and member relations, said: ‘Ultimately these attempts to curtail the freedoms of nursing staff will only exacerbate our dispute with a government that takes nursing staff for granted.
‘This provocative approach to industrial relations makes further strike action by nurses more likely, not less likely.’
Professor Ranger echoed the sentiment and warned the government that it was setting itself on a ‘collision course’ with nursing staff.
She said: ‘At its heart, this provocative, draconian new law tries to stop them from speaking up for their patients – and makes strike action more likely. Nursing staff will never be silenced.’
Business minister Kevin Hollinrake said: ‘The ability to strike needs to be balanced with ensuring people continue to have access to essential services.
‘Businesses should also not have their freedoms restricted by burdensome regulations that aren’t justified. This is why we are seeking views on removing such unnecessary rules, so businesses are able to decide for themselves what staffing is required.’