The UK health system is heading for a massive strike by nurses

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the industry’s largest trade union, asked its 300,000 members a simple question: are you ready to strike for pay rises? The consultation lasted almost a month, starting on 6 October. The count must be completed by Wednesday 9 November at the latest. The result is not in doubt, according to Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary: the answer will be yes.

It will then be up to the RCN to define the terms of the action. But everything points to a strike notice before Christmas across the NHS, the British health system. All the nations of the country combined: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. Although some hospitals may be spared, the right to strike rules in the NHS only allow work to stop in an establishment if the strike has been voted by a majority, each time, at local level. In any case, it will be a historic event, unprecedented for more than a century. The other unions, Unison and GMB, are also in the process of consulting their members. The result will probably be the same.

The password is simple: salary. Nurses have seen their purchasing power fall by 20% over the last ten years in the UK and since the Conservatives came to power. The government proposes an increase of 4 per cent. The unions are asking for a minimum of 15 per cent. They claim that many of their members are now forced to turn to food banks for food.

This likely conflict will not help the state of the UK health system, which is already in poor shape, the consequence of years of underinvestment. Seven million patients are waiting for an appointment. Almost 30% of patients diagnosed with cancer have to wait more than two months before they benefit from the first treatments. Nurses are slamming the door on the NHS due to falling spending power: more than 25,000 have quit in the past year. The number of vacancies exceeds 40,000.

The public authorities are so desperate that last month they launched a call for retired doctors, for care workers working abroad and even for volunteers to come and help in pharmacies and drugstores. During the upcoming strike, only emergency and critical care will be maintained. Otherwise, it will be curtains with strikes in front of the establishments, say the trade unions’ projects.

Suffice it to say that the waiting lists promise to be considerably longer, and this promises to be a big challenge for the new government of Rishi Sunak. After the cacophonous episode Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, presents himself as a strict man. Rishi Sunak intends to rebalance public spending. He faces a gap of £50 billion, 57 billion. He therefore intends to raise taxes and at the same time lower public expenditure. It is a policy that is difficult to reconcile with salary increases for nurses. This case can therefore turn into a showdown.

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