Nurses, ambulance crews strike, straining English health system

London: Tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance staff have walked off the job in England in what unions called the biggest strike in the history of the country’s public health system.

The walkout was the latest in a wave of strikes that have disrupted Britons’ lives for months, as workers – especially in the public sector – demand pay raises to keep pace with double-digit inflation. Teachers, train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving instructors, bus drivers and postal workers also have staged strikes in recent months to demand higher pay.

Striking nurses on a picket line outside University College London Hospital during strike action in London on Monday.Credit:Bloomberg

Nurses and ambulance workers have been striking separately since late last year but Monday’s walkout involving both, largely in England, is the biggest in the 75-year history of the National Health Service.

Nurses will also walk out on Tuesday, ambulance staff on Friday, and physiotherapists Thursday, making the week probably the most disruptive in NHS history, its Medical Director Stephen Powis said.

Teachers, health workers and many others say their wages have fallen in real terms over the last decade, and a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by sharply rising food and energy prices has left many struggling to pay their bills.

Victoria Busk, a trainee nursing associate at a trauma centre in Birmingham, central England, said hospitals were understaffed and nurses “run off our feet 24/7”.

Healthcare workers take further strike action for fair pay in Westminster in London on Monday. They will walk out again on Tuesday and workers from other sectors will join them later in the week.Credit:Getty Images

“We need people to want to come into” the profession, she said. “The only way that we’re going to get that is by raising wages and make sure it is something that people want to do.”

Around 500,000 workers, many from the public sector, have been staging strikes since last northern summer, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resolve the disputes and limit disruption to public services such as railways and schools.

“The government needs to listen and discuss pay rather than just saying the NHS doesn’t have money,” said nurse Ethna Vaughan, who was part of a demonstration outside St. Thomas’ Hospital in central London.

“We cannot survive with what we’re being paid.”

Britain’s annual inflation rate was 10.5 per cent in December, a 41-year high. The Conservative government argues that giving public sector staff pay increases of 10 per cent or more would drive inflation even higher.

The strike piles more pressure on the state-funded NHS, already staggering under demand from winter viruses, staff shortages and backlogs built up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nursing unions said emergency care and cancer treatment would continue during their 48-hour walkout, but thousands of appointments and procedures are likely to be postponed.

The ambulance service said it would respond to the most urgent calls, but Business Secretary Grant Shapps said the strike could put lives at risk, leaving people with “a postcode lottery when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke”.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union representing some ambulance staff, said on Sunday there had been “no talks at any level whatsoever with the government” about pay. She urged the prime minister to “come to the table and negotiate – roll your sleeves up and negotiate on the pay in the NHS – that is what’s require”.

Pat Cullen, head of the Royal College of Nursing union, also said a “meaningful” pay offer from the government could bring the strike “to a swift close”.

Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, said there was no plan for the prime minister to get directly involved in talks, but “we want to keep discussing how we can find a path forward with the unions”.

A near-empty terrace outside restaurants in Leadenhall Market at lunchtime during a train drivers strike in London last Friday. Strikes are estimated to have cost the UK economy £1.5 billion ($2.6 billion) last year, according to Bloomberg Economics. Credit:Bloomberg

“We’ve got one of the busiest winters we have ever had with record levels of funding going into the NHS to try and manage services,” Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health and women’s health strategy, told Sky News.

“So every per cent of a pay increase takes money away.”

Unions are seeking a pay raise for the current year, but the government says it would only talk about the year ahead.

The nursing strike affects England. In Scotland and Wales – which have semiautonomous governments in charge of health policy – unions have suspended walkouts while negotiations continue.

Sunak’s government also has 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 walkout.

AP, Reuters

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