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High Public Support For NHS Strikes Is Challenging Rishi Sunak's Refusal To Budge

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Croydon University Hospital (Alamy)

6 min read

Unprecedented scenes of nurses chanting and holding placards on picket lines outside hospitals up and down the country has left Rishi Sunak with an almighty headache heading into the Christmas break.

Strikes are taking place right across the public sector in the coming weeks, with National Health Service nurses joining ambulance drivers, railway staff, postal workers, teachers and civil servants in taking to the picket line in their campaign for pay rises in line with or above inflation.

Taken together, it is industrial action on a scale unseen in this country for decades, and is set to cause significant widespread disruption at one of the busiest times of the year. 

But it is the nurses strikes which are the greatest cause for concern for the government. 

While No 10 has been prepared to take the fight to Mick Lynch's National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), for example, accusing their strike action of creating "misery" for millions, ministers have been markedly more careful in the language used in relation to nurses on the picket line because of a belief within government that the plight of NHS staff will attract particularly high levels of public sympathy. 

Research published by pollsters Ipsos on Thursday found that 50% of people supported nurses going on strike, while 34% said they were opposed to it.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is demanding a 19 per cent rise in nurse pay, which ministers say is unaffordable in the current economic climate. As things stand, the government will not sit down and negotiate with the union, despite the RCN's offer to call off strikes if the government returns to the table. Sunak, however, is refusing to budge on the 4 per cent pay rise recommended by the Independent NHS Pay Review Body earlier this year, which nurses now say is inadequate as a result of high inflation.  

But the Prime Minister is now under increasing pressure from senior Tory MPs to reach a compromise.

Robert Buckland, the former secretary of state for Wales and justice, told this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown "there must be a middle way". Buckland said that while he felt that an inflation-beating agreement of more than 11 per cent "is a difficult one", he acknowledged that "there's a long way between 4 per cent and 19 per cent”.

Health Committee Chair Steve Brine and former Conservative party chairman Jake Berry are also in the chorus of Conservative MPs calling for Sunak to go beyond the 4 per cent offer. 

Richard, a lung cancer nurse of 12 years, who spoke to PoliticsHome outside Guy's Hospital in London Bridge on Thursday, said further strike action in the New Year was "inevitable" if the government didn't at least enter negotiations with the RCN, which is led by Pat Cullen.

“For the last ten years, nurses have been undermined, underfunded and underappreciated by the government," he said. 

"There is a real shortage of nurses on the floor. We are here today to make sure the future of nursing is safe and that we can provide the care that we want to provide to patients.”

Yolimar, an NHS community nurse of nine years who was on strike outside St Thomas' Hospital in Westminster, agreed with Richard that the current level of nurses' pay was driving people away from the health service and contributing to a staff recruitment and retention crisis. 

“Nurses want to give patients the best care and as much time as possible," she told PoliticsHome.

“But if I have 10 patients to see in the community, and every one of those patients has different needs, because we don’t have enough staff I do extra houses and get home very late, exhausted and worried about those patients... It is affecting our mental health."

Like Richard, Yolimar said she would be prepared to join the picket line early next year and beyond if Sunak continued to refuse to sit down with the union. “We have a lot of support from the public and patients. In there the patients have been clapping for us and supporting us," she said.

With further nursing strikes in the new year clearly a very real possibility, and with the number of senior Tories calling for a compromise on NHS pay on the rise, Sunak will come under even greater pressure to get around the negotiating table with the RCN.

Nurses on strike

On 21 and 28 December, NHS ambulance drivers will join their nursing colleagues in taking industrial action, forcing the government to deploy a series of extraordinary mitigations.

Soldiers will be on standby to drive ambulances in the event of there being no paramedic available to respond in non-urgent situations, Downing Street has confirmed, while NHS trusts may also be forced to pay for taxi drivers to transport patients to hospitals in non-life-threatening cases.

Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (CDL), has led numerous cross-departmental meetings on this winter's industrial action and how to mitigate the effects in recent weeks, including Cobra meetings this week. However, the government is facing questions over preparedness and whether it had been slow to respond to the prospect of severe disruption.

A military source was last week quoted in The Guardian as saying that inadequate government preparation for Winter pressures meant soldiers would be forced to work over Christmas. “Maca (military aid to civilian authorities) used to be a last resort. Now it’s the go-to. Bad government planning equals soldiers missing Xmas," they said.

PoliticsHome understands that some government figures have expressed confusion over why a weekly, cross-departmental meeting set up in the summer by former CDL Kit Malthouse, in which ministers and officials reported their progress in preparing for winter disruption, was done away with after he left the Cabinet Office. These so-called "Grip" meetings looked at a range of potential challenges coming down the track, including the prospect of ambulance drivers going on strike.

Both No 10 and the Cabinet Office stressed that Dowden has regularly been leading meetings in preparation for Winter pressures, but did not deny that the "Grip" meetings had been ended.

As unions threaten to stage further walkouts in 2023, Sunak will be keen to ensure this month's "Winter of discontent" does not stretch into the new year and beyond but with a growing appetite for compromise both inside and outside of Westminster, the Prime Minister may be forced to hold his nose and make some difficult decisions. 

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