By Sachin Ravikumar
With tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walking out in an intensifying pay dispute, health workers in Britain started their greatest strike on Monday, severely taxing the government-run National Health Service (NHS).
Since late last year, nurses and ambulance workers have been striking individually on and off. However, the combined strike on Monday, which took place mostly in England, was the largest in the NHS’s 75-year history.
The week, according to the NHS’s Medical Director Stephen Powis, will likely be the most disruptive in its history when nurses and ambulance workers go on strike on Tuesday, physiotherapists strike on Thursday, and nurses go on strike on Tuesday.
While the government argues that this would be unaffordable and lead to more price increases, which would in turn cause interest rates and mortgage payments to increase, health workers are requesting a wage increase that represents the worst inflation in Britain in four decades.
Since last summer, some 500,000 employees, many of them in the public sector, have participated in strikes, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to settle the conflicts and minimise disruptions to essential services like trains and schools.
Sunak was urged in a letter from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union to make “serious” compensation proposals in order to “quickly terminate” the nursing strike.
Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, said on Monday that this winter is one of the busiest ever and that unprecedented amounts of money are being put into the NHS to try to manage services.
“So every percentage point of salary growth costs money.”
While warning that patients will experience interruption and delays, the government has asked people to continue using emergency services and showing up to appointments during the strikes unless they have been cancelled.
The NHS, a source of pride for the majority of Britons, is under tremendous pressure as a result of the millions of patients on waiting lists for surgeries and the thousands of people who are not promptly given emergency care each month.
According to the RCN, a decade of low compensation has caused tens of thousands of nurses to quit their jobs, including 25,000 in the past year alone, with negative effects on patient care.
The RCN first demanded a wage increase of 5% over inflation and then stated it might meet the government “halfway,” but despite weeks of negotiations, neither party has been able to come to an understanding.
The GMB and Unite trade unions, which represent thousands of ambulance workers, are planning a walkout on Monday over a salary issue. The two unions have each scheduled further days of strike action.
There won’t be a mass strike by ambulance staff; cries for help will still be answered.
As they consider salary offers from the Welsh government, nurses and certain ambulance personnel in Wales have cancelled strikes scheduled for Monday.
In a TalkTV interview last week, Sunak stated that he would “love to give the nurses a large wage boost,” but added that the government was forced to make difficult decisions and that it was financing the NHS in other ways, such as by giving ambulances and medical equipment.
Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Sarah Young; Editing by News Gate Team