Nurses and ambulance workers continue strikes across England
Striking nurses refused to staff a struggling intensive care ward despite a health chief’s plea for help.
In a move sure to fuel public concern about escalating strike action, some staff at Colchester Hospital ignored their union’s request to provide “life and limb” care.
Nick Hulme, chief executive of the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said he was only able to admit one patient to the intensive therapy unit at the hospital because of nurses declining to attend.
Thousands of nurses across the country walked out at 8pm on Sunday in a 28-hour strike after rejecting the Government’s pay deal.
The Royal College of Nursing has described the action as the “biggest strike yet” because it includes staff from emergency departments, intensive care and cancer care for the first time.
But, in a last-minute climb down, the RCN agreed to allow some staff to break the strike and provide additional support to hospitals unable to safely staff wards to “protect life and limb services”.
But at Colchester Hospital some striking nurses defied their leaders’ exemptions and failed to turn up to work on Sunday night.
Mr Hulme said: “Unfortunately, despite that exemption, the nurses still chose not to come in. They’re not obliged to come in even if asked to come in by ourselves and the RCN.
“So we were in a position where we had to significantly reduce the capacity down to the fact we could only admit one patient because that patient was too difficult, was too sick to transfer on Monday night.
“We knew that we were going to be very short-staffed, and we made the decision to ask for that exemption [in the] middle of last week.
“[But] despite that exemption being given, despite the RCN asking their staff to come in and, indeed, myself messaging all those staff asking them to come in, they decided not to, which is why we had reduced capacity.”
It is understood two nurses did return to the hospital on Monday morning to respond to the request for additional staff.
Mr Hulme said he respected people’s right to strike and admitted there was “clearly a lot of anger towards the pay and conditions” that nurses have.
He added: “It has been more difficult this time, and I think with the escalation you kind of wonder where it’s going to go next.”
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The hospital boss said there was a “sense of fatigue” among staff who “want it to be over”.
He added: “But they also recognise that there are a lot of people who are still very angry about their terms and conditions and feel as though they have no option.
“I certainly am sensing a change in the mood among our staff – they want it to end but they also want a fair deal.”
The Royal College of Nursing also warned its industrial action could last for years.
RCN chief Pat Cullen warned they will “grind the cycle again” if pay does not significantly increase.
The militant approach could last for five years unless a resolution is reached, the general secretary warned.
She said: “If we have the same approach to pay negotiations next year, do we just grind the cycle again?
“Well, there is a strong possibility, because it appears that, for our nursing staff, that is the only way that they can get their voice heard.
“If [the Government] take the same blinkered approach to addressing pay for nursing stuff, then we will find ourselves in the same position.”
Conservative MP Sir John Hayes urged nurses to think of their patients’ welfare. He said: “I would urge nurses to be true to their calling.”
Sir John said it was “bizarre” that the RCN was threatening years of strike action when Ms Cullen had recommended the pay deal.
Whitehall sources pointed out that the RCN does not have a mandate for any more strike action.
Nurses are expected to find themselves out-voted when the NHS staff council meets today to ratify the Government’s pay deal.
It includes a five percent 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.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, 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.
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“I think our view now is that given 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.”
A Government source said: “The Health Secretary [Steve Barclay] is looking forward to today’s NHS staff council meeting. He is cautiously optimistic the council will agree to accept our fair and reasonable pay offer after members of Unison, GMB and several other health unions have voted to accept.”
Ms Cullen recommended the deal she helped to negotiate to members but they narrowly rejected it.
She is planning to ballot members for a mandate for six more months of strike action.
On Monday night, Ms Cullen said: “Tuesday’s meeting with Steve Barclay appears to be a foregone conclusion.”
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