For the first time in 32 years, health workers across England took part in a 4-hour strike last month in protest of NHS wage stagnation, encouraged by the government’s refusal to provide a 1% increase on workers’ pay, despite it being recommended by an independent report.
Unions representing over 400,000 health workers, including nurses, ambulance staff and midwives, asked members to participate in a range of different strike actions, with the largest unions, UNISON, GMB and UNITE, alongside others, requesting that members withdraw their labour between 7am and 11am on Monday 13th October. The strike was concentrated in the English and Northern Irish sections of the NHS, because NHS Scotland has chosen to implement the report’s recommendations. It is still unknown how many took part in the strike action, but is estimated that around one quarter of members did not attend work during the strike hours. Disruption to essential services was not as widespread as initially feared, due to all 7 participating unions agreeing to provide cover for emergency cases. Hospital staff in Central London were even witnessed leaving the picket lines to deal with patients in need of urgent care.
More strike action over the coming weeks has been threatened by unions, unless the government reverses its divisive decision to reject the findings of an independent report made by the NHS Pay Review Body, which recommended that all NHS staff should receive a 1% pay increase. Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, described the conclusions of the report as financially unworkable and unaffordable in the current economic climate. Hunt later claimed that if the NHS were to provide such a rise then it has the potential to compromise patient care, as some health workers would be forced into redundancy, hereby further stretching the emergency services, “We have had very clear analysis that if we did that, hospital chief executives would lay off around 4,000 nurses this year and around 10,000 nurses next year.”
The economic situation of the NHS has been under close scrutiny by both MPs and the media, especially in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, where it already appears NHS funding will be a hotly-debated political issue, with the main political parties indicating that they would increase the funding received by the NHS from central government should they win the election.
However, the current financial difficulties for the NHS lie in the 2009 “Nicholson Challenge”, where the then-NHS England leader, Sir David Nicholson, created a series of directives that required the NHS to make £20 billion of efficiency savings by 2014, later postponed to 2015. Current NHS management have been criticised by the Health Select Committee for mismanaging efficiency programmes and for failing to provide sustainable budget cuts, instead relying upon ‘quick fixes’, such as the controversial pay freezes.
Trade unions point out that more than one third of non-medical NHS staff earn less than £21,000 a year, and argue that it is unfair for ‘low-paid workers’ to be expected to bear the brunt of any further budget cuts, especially given that the government are rejecting the findings of an independent pay review body. Since neither the government nor the trade unions look set to change their gridlocked position, and with another strike planned for late-November, the debate over workers’ pay looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.