Striking British nurses and paramedics are straining the healthcare system
LONDON — Tens of thousands of nurses and paramedics walked off the job in the UK on Monday in what unions have called the biggest strike in the history of the country’s public health system.
The strike is the latest in a wave of strikes that have disrupted the lives of Britons for months, as workers – particularly in the public sector – demand pay rises to keep pace with double-digit inflation . Teachers, train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving instructors, bus drivers and postal workers have also all quit their jobs in recent months to demand a pay rise.
Teachers, health workers and many others say their salaries have fallen in real terms over the past decade, and a cost of living crisis fueled by soaring food and energy prices left a lot of trouble paying their bills.
Britain’s annual inflation rate was 10.5% in December, a 41-year high. The Conservative government argues that giving public sector employees wage increases of 10% or more would lead to even higher inflation.
The strike is increasing pressure on the state-funded National Health Service, already reeling under the strain of winter viruses, staff shortages and backlogs built up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurses’ unions say emergency care and cancer treatment will continue during their 48-hour walkout, but thousands of appointments and procedures are likely to be postponed.
The ambulance service says it will respond to the most urgent calls during a one-day strike. But Business Secretary Grant Shapps said the strike could put lives at risk, leaving people with “a lottery of postcodes when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke”.
Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union representing some paramedics, said on Sunday there was “no discussion at any level with the government” over wages. She urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “come to the table and negotiate – roll up your sleeves and negotiate the salary in the NHS – that is what is needed”.
Pat Cullen, head of the Royal College of Nursing union, also said a “meaningful” government wage offer could end the strike “quickly”.
The unions are asking for a salary increase for the current year, but the government says it will only talk about the coming year. Health Secretary Steve Barclay has urged unions to call off the strikes, “look forward and engage in constructive dialogue” on wages for 2023-24.
Monday’s nurses’ strike affects England. In Scotland and Wales – which have semi-autonomous governments in charge of health policy – unions have suspended walkouts while negotiations continue.
Sunak’s government has also angered unions by introducing a bill that will make it harder for key workers to strike by setting “minimum safety levels” for firefighters, ambulance services and railways that must be maintained during a strike.