By Asmau Ahmad with agency report
Nursed in the United Kingdom on Tuesday staged a second unprecedented strike amid an increasingly acrimonious fight with the government for better wages and warnings that patient safety could be jeopardised.
Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are holding the latest one-day stoppage after walking out last Thursday for the first time in the union’s 106-year history.
They are demanding an inflation-busting pay increase to make up for years of real-terms salary cuts, but the government insists recession-hit Britain cannot afford anything above a roughly 4-5 percent rise.
The striking nurses are just one of numerous UK public and private sector workers taking industrial action over pay and working conditions, as they grapple with a cost-of-living crisis worsened by decades-high inflation.
The UK consumer prices index is currently running at nearly 11 percent.
Ambulance workers, including paramedics and call handlers, are set to strike on Wednesday.
A second such walkout is scheduled for December 28, while others, including postal, railway and Border Force staff are staging stoppages over the Christmas period.
The RCN has criticised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government for refusing to discuss pay as part of stalled negotiations to end the dispute, and warned the strikes could be repeated in the coming months.
“The only reason we’re entrenched is because we’ve got no one to talk to about what the issue is,” the union’s director in England, Patricia Marquis, told Times Radio on Monday.
“Sadly, if there is no resolution, then our members have taken a vote to take strike action and the mandate that lasts for six months.”
The union has also accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of adopting a “macho” negotiating style during brief meetings held recently.
“The RCN’s demands are unaffordable during these challenging times and would take money away from frontline services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic,” Barclay said Monday.
He and other ministers have reiterated that they can only accept the recommendations of an independent pay review body.
The government-appointed body, comprised of economists and human resources experts, urged hiking healthcare sector pay at least £1,400 ($1,740) on top of a 3.0 percent increase last year.
But critics argue it is constrained by government-imposed budget limits and that its assessment, published in July, predates current higher inflation rates.
Sunak is set to be quizzed by a cross-party watchdog panel of lawmakers on Tuesday, with the issue of strikes likely to feature.
On the eve of the nurses’ latest strike, he insisted the government has adopted a “responsible and fair approach” to public sector pay.
“When it comes to pay it’s because these things are difficult that we have an independent process,” he said while on a visit to Latvia.
Ministers from various departments held their latest contingency meeting Monday as they bid to mitigate the fallout from the growing number of public sector strikes.
They plan to draft in 750 military personnel to drive ambulances and perform logistics roles.
A further 625 soldiers will be involved in “contingency planning” to replace Border Force staff striking over numerous days from Friday through to New Year’s Eve.
Despite the government’s dogged insistence, it will not negotiate over pay, polls indicate the majority of people support the nurses’ stance, and to a lesser extent other workers walking out.
YouGov polling during December reported by The Sunday Times showed nearly two-thirds back the nurses, while half are supportive of ambulance staff stoppages.
However, after a year of strikes on the railways, only 37 percent backed its workers amid their ongoing dispute over pay and conditions.