Union leader Pat Cullen has urged Health Secretary Steve Barclay “not to be disrespectful” to nurses amid their “biggest strike yet” over the bank holiday.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary’s comment came after Mr Barclay described their ongoing industrial action as “premature” and “disrespectful” to the other trade unions who are meeting to discuss the Government’s pay offer on Tuesday.
Under the NHS Staff Council, the unions will consider the offer of a 5% pay increase for 2023/24 along with a one-off payment worth between £1,655 and £3,789 for the current financial year for nurses in England.
Thousands of nurses walked out at 8pm on Sunday in what has been described by the RCN as their “biggest strike yet” because it includes nursing staff from emergency departments, intensive care and cancer care for the first time.
However, the RCN granted exemptions for some nurses in intensive care units and emergency departments in select hospitals, including Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).
Hours before the strike began on Sunday night, NHS England announced that a number of national exemptions had been agreed with the RCN to ensure staff could protect life-and-limb services – including in neonatal intensive care units (ICU), paediatric ICUs, general ICUs and emergency departments.
The 28-hour action, which will end just before midnight on Monday, came after a High Court judge ruled it would be unlawful for it to continue into Tuesday as originally planned.
On Monday morning, Ms Cullen defended nurses after Mr Barclay described their strike as “disrespectful” to other unions and urged him to “get round this table immediately” to resolve the dispute.
She told Sky News: “There’s certainly no disrespect being shown from our nursing staff, I can say that categorically.
“I would ask the Secretary of State not to be disrespectful to those hundreds of thousands of nursing staff that have participated in this ballot and that are losing another day’s pay today, standing out on picket lines – standing up for our health service that’s been totally broken by this Government.
“An NHS in crisis, seven million-plus people on waiting lists – so how are we going to address all of those issues, how are we going to address tens of thousands of vacant posts that we’ve got in England?
“If we don’t, then we will continue with serious risk to patient safety and we will never get the backlog sorted.
“So, it really is incumbent on this Secretary of State to get round this table immediately with myself and the Royal College of Nursing, and put more money (on the table) and let our nursing staff get back and do what they want to do, and that is care for our patients.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told Sky that strikes have “taken a heavy toll” on services and urged unions to accept the pay deal.
“I think our view now is that given that most staff have voted in favour of this deal, it is time to accept it, for the unions to work together and for us to think more long-term about what we need to do to address that crisis of 120,000 vacancies in the health service,” he said.
“Obviously we’d rather these strikes were not taking place. They come after six months of on-and-off industrial action which has taken a heavy toll on the NHS.”
Nurses comprise a quarter of NHS staff and are the biggest proportion of the health service workforce.
Healthcare workers are also staging a protest in central London on Monday under Unite.
The union said this demonstration will coincide with a strike by its members from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and the Yorkshire Ambulance Service.
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