Ministers in the U.K. have been negotiating with the Royal College of Nursing to prevent a strike over an ongoing pay dispute, but the RCN says the government is asking the highest court to issue a ruling that would make the strike illegal.
RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen says the group is planning to strike on April 30 and May 2. It will involve NHS nurses in emergency departments, intensive care, cancer, and other wards, which is a first for the RCN. Previous nurse demonstrations only involved those in critical care departments.
The U.K. government has offered a 5 percent pay increase for 2023/24 and one-payment of at least £1,655, but the RCN union members voted down the proposal 54 percent to 46 percent. After the upcoming demonstrations, Cullen said the members will vote on their next move.
“If that ballot is successful, it will mean further strike action right up until Christmas,” Cullen said.
Conservative party chairman Greg Hands said the government’s pay offer was “fair and reasonable.” But it seems the government is now using the courts to stop the nurses from striking instead of negotiating.
Steve Barclay, Health Secretary, said he has no plans to prevent the nurses from striking. But he is asking the high court in London to rule that the portion of the industrial action set to take place on May 2 is illegal because, he claims, the RCN’s legal mandate to go on strike runs out at midnight on Monday 1 May.
Cullen called the threat “wrong and indefensible.” She added, “The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them … including in court.”
If Barclay gets his way, the ruling will forbid the nurses from striking on May 2. The RCN is disputing the secretary’s request and a hearing is scheduled in the next few days.
Cullen wrote to her members that the ruling will truncate the strike if they lose the case. “If the government succeeds in silencing members like you and convinces the court to stop part of our strike, then we’ll have no choice but to cut it short,” she said.
Government officials say they are worried about the strike impacting patient care and safety. The RCN has come under fire for not letting certain nurses and wards opt out of the strike even though they did so when they went on strike in February and at the end of 2022.
However, Barclay maintains that the strike is “unlawful.”
“Following a request from NHS Employers I am regretfully applying to the high court to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s planned strike action on 2 May unlawful,” he said. “Despite attempts by my officials to resolve the situation over the weekend, I have been left with no choice but to proceed with legal action.”
“I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law,” he added. “But the government cannot stand by and let a plainly unlawful strike action go ahead nor ignore the request of NHS Employers. We must also protect nurses by ensuring they are not asked to take part in an unlawful strike.”