The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) upcoming strike action of NHS nursing staff in England has been cut short after a judge ruled that the last day of its strike plans were unlawful.
At a hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice today, the honourable Mr Justice Linden issued an interim declaration finding that it would be unlawful for NHS nurses to take industrial action next Tuesday.
Responding to the decision RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said nurses were ‘angered but not crushed’ by today’s verdict.
The upcoming strike action will now take place from 8pm on Sunday 30 April and finish just before midnight on Monday 1 May, having previously been set to last for 48 hours.
Ms Cullen warned that the judgement today may make nurses ‘more determined’ to vote for a further six months of strike action in next month’s ballot.
‘Nobody wants strikes until Christmas – we should be in the negotiating room, not the courtroom today,’ said Ms Cullen in a statement.
She added: ‘It is the darkest day of this dispute so far – the government taking its own nurses through the courts in bitterness at their simple expectation of a better pay deal.’
The RCN offered no representation in court today, instead offering a witness statement from Ms Cullen which Mr Linden said ‘appears to have been written for a different audience’ and was largely ‘beside the point’.
Mr Linden said that the RCN ‘has shown a high degree of unreasonableness’ in dealing with the government’s legal challenge and ordered the college to pay legal costs of £35,000.
He added that ‘instead of grasping the nettle’ and admitting that their strike was unlawful the RCN had ‘forced the secretary of state to come to court although it itself did not see fit to turn up’.
The RCN had argued that the mandate for industrial action should last six months from 2 November when the ballot closed, meaning that striking would be lawful until 2 May.
However, the court ultimately agreed with the health and social care secretary’s argument that the law clearly states that 2 November counted as the first day of the six-month period, meaning the mandate expires at midnight 1 May.
Lawyer Andrew Burns, representing the secretary of state, said that the government had a responsibility to ‘protect the members of the RCN itself from the incompetence of its leadership’.
‘NHS Employers and the secretary of state are concerned that this abrogation of responsibility by the RCN puts nurses at risk.’
Responding to the ruling, health and social care secretary Steve Barclay, said: ‘I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law – but the government could not stand by and let plainly unlawful strike action go ahead.’
He said he welcomed the decision and claimed the government ‘wants to continue working constructively’ with the RCN.
While the RCN did not make a defence in court, Ms Cullen and other members of the college gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice to demonstrate against the hearing before it began.
Ahead of the hearing and speaking outside the courts, former president of the RCN Professor Anne Marie Rafferty, told Nursing in Practice she thought ‘nurses are being made an example of’.
Professor Rafferty said that the decision to pursue the legal challenge ‘symbolises where the government is at in terms of weaponising the law in order to constrain the right of workers to strike’.
‘I think nurses are being singled out. Mediation and dialogue is the only way forward, not taking these draconian steps,’ she added.
The RCN announced that members would be authorised to take strike action in a letter to the health secretary on April 14 after members voted to reject the government’s latest pay offer in England.
Out of the 61% of members who voted, 54% of those 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.
This follows a long dispute between health unions and the Department of Health and Social Care which began last summer.