The Royal College of Nursing has announced a new 48-hour nurse strike in England after its members voted to reject the government’s latest pay offer for NHS nurses.
However, separately, NHS workers who belong to the union Unison have voted ‘decisively’ to accept the government’s offer. Unison is therefore now urging the government to ensure health workers in England receive the new pay offer ‘at the earliest opportunity’.
In a consultation receiving a 61% turnout, 54% of RCN members voted to reject the offer of a one-off payment for 2022/23 worth between £1,655 and £3,789 and a 5% consolidated (permanent) pay increase for 2023/24. Meanwhile, 46% voted to accept.
Following the rejection, the RCN has announced that it will hold a ’round-the-clock 48-hour strike without derogations’ from 8pm April 30 till 8pm on May 2.
This will be the first nursing strike to involve members working in emergency departments, intensive care units, cancer care and other services that were previously exempt.
The RCN has previously taken strike action on six days since securing an industrial action mandate last year. Proposed 48-hour strikes earlier this year were put on hold following the announcement of ‘intensive’ negotiations between the college and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) which culminated in the latest pay offer.
In a letter to health secretary Steve Barclay, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, said: ‘What has been offered to date is simply not enough. The government needs to increase what has already been offered and we will be highly critical of any move to reduce it.’
She added: ‘Until there is a significantly improved offer, we are forced back to the picket line. Meetings alone are not sufficient to prevent strike action and I will require an improved offer as soon as possible. In February, you opened negotiations directly with me and I urge you to do the same now.’
The RCN has a strike mandate until May 2023, but has today announced plans to hold an England-wide statutory ballot for members which could ‘extend the scope and duration’ of its mandate.
The pay offer was the subject of intense and organised resistance from members of multiple unions after its announcement on March 16, with many expressing disappointment that the RCN leadership would endorse a below inflation pay settlement.
Holly Turner, a child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) nurse from the East of England and co-founder of campaign group NHS Workers Say No, said the decision by nurses to vote against the pay offer had not been easy.
‘I think the government were banking on us focussing on the lump sum,’ Ms Turner said in reference to the one-off payment.
‘Me and my husband are both nurses so between us its over £4,000. It’s a difficult decision.
‘Our mortgage has gone up, our bills have all gone up, life is difficult. We’ve got two children so it’s not an easy decision saying ‘no’ when you’ve got a family.’
As part of her campaign group, ‘tens of thousands’ of leaflets advocating for nurses to reject the offer were handed out in recent weeks. Ms Turner said she had ‘never seen this level of engagement before’.
‘There is a real strength of feeling out there and people feel like this is our last chance,’ she added.
Josh Gilroy, an RCN steward and newly qualified community staff nurse, told Nursing in Practice he believed nurses were ‘developing a voice which will not be silenced’.
Though Mr Gilroy added: ‘The hard work isn’t over, we need now to unite and ensure patient safety is protected in law with safe staffing legislation and [that] we get restorative pay for nurses at least in line with inflation.
‘The government has the power to make a guarantee to restore nurses pay and ensure patients get the care they deserve by enabling guaranteed safety ratios.’
Unison members ‘decisively’ accept
Meanwhile, Unison’s consultation of NHS workers across England, which closed at 3pm this afternoon, saw members vote to accept the pay offer.
While receiving a turnout of 53%, results showed almost three quarters (74%) voted to accept the offer, while 26% voted to reject.
Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: ‘Clearly health workers would have wanted more, but this was the best that could be achieved through negotiation.
‘Over the past few weeks, health workers have weighed up what’s on offer. They’ve opted for the certainty of getting the extra cash in their pockets soon.’
Ms Gorton said it was ‘a pity’ it had taken several months of strike action before ministers agreed to talks with the unions.
‘Unions told ministers last summer the £1,400 pay rise wasn’t enough to stop staff leaving the NHS, nor to prevent strikes. But they didn’t want to listen,’ she added.
‘Instead, health workers were forced to strike, losing money they could ill afford. The NHS and its patients suffered months of unnecessary disruption.’
Other unions including the Royal College of Midwives, GMB and Unite, are continuing to ballot their members on the offer until later this month.
Ms Gorton said it would not be until the end of April that the ‘full picture’ would ‘emerge’.
But she stressed that Unison would be ‘urging the government to ensure NHS workers get the wage rises they’ve voted for at the earliest opportunity’.
While this vote ‘might end Unison’s dispute’, Ms Gorton said it did not resolve the ‘wider staffing emergency’ facing the health service. She urged the government to work with unions to ‘bring about a sustained programme of investment in the workforce’.
‘Lessons must also be learned. The mistakes of the past few months cannot be repeated,’ she added, while calling for ‘a whole new approach to setting pay across the NHS’.
The government’s response
Responding to the RCN’s rejection and strike plans, a government spokesperson said: ‘It is hugely disappointing that the Royal College of Nursing membership has rejected the pay deal recommended by their leadership.
The spokesperson claimed that after ‘constructive discussions’ with unions, ‘all parties agreed this was a fair and generous offer’.
‘The fact that the Royal College of Nursing has announced an escalation in strike action with no derogations, based on a vote from the minority of the nursing workforce, will be hugely concerning for patients,’ they added.
Meanwhile, on the results of the Unison ballot, a government spokesperson said: ‘The decision by members of Unison, the largest NHS union, to accept the pay offer recommended by their leadership demonstrates that it is a fair and reasonable proposal that can bring this dispute to an end.
‘Hundreds of thousands of Agenda for Change staff continue to vote in ballots for other unions over the next two weeks and we hope this generous offer secures their support.’