UK: Rishi Sunak refuses to back down in iconic nurses row

Sent 20 Dec. 2022 at 17:02Updated 20 Dec. 2022 at 17:18

No bright spot in sight on the social front in Britain. In the wake of the nurses’ strike, the first for more than a hundred years, the British government is maintaining its position on a movement with the sympathy of a majority of opinion.

In an interview with the “Daily Mail”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, faced with his first major social test, reiterated that he would stand firm against “unreasonable” wage demands. “I urge unions to consider the impact of these strikes on people’s lives and health and to assess whether they are appropriate,” he added.

Tensions rose again this week when paramedics joined the processions, raising the possibility that even emergencies (heart attacks, car accidents) will no longer be attended to. Will Quince, Secretary of State for Health, tried to reassure the public. “I was very clear to the unions that vital emergencies should be provided as part of a minimum service,” he responded in an interview with LBC radio.

Salary question

It has been six months now that strikes have spread to Britain, a country where for three decades they had been extremely rare. From railway workers, social movements have spread to many sectors: telecommunications, post, highways, border police and, more recently, in the health system. All are linked to the issue of wages, while inflation has been above 10% for months.

According to the latest survey by the British Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of strike days (417,000 in October) is the highest since the pension reform in 2011, when almost a million workers went on strike. But it is still far from the great movements of the 1980s, when several million working days were lost every month.

Price-wage spiral

So far, the government has ruled out matching wage demands, arguing that this would only fuel a price-wage spiral and therefore require even more painful decisions to contain inflation. For Rishi Sunak, the issue is also political, he who wants to build an image of budgetary credibility.

The Downing Street tenant does not want to give the impression that he is giving in easily to social movements, which are often unpopular with the Conservative electorate. According to Will Quince, if the government gave nurses the 19% pay rise they are demanding, it would cost £10 billion “which would have to be taken from the NHS budget” (National Health Service), the public health system in English.

Public sympathy

Where the movement of health workers particularly challenges the government is that it has the sympathy of a large part of the population because of its leading role during the pandemic and the risk to patient safety. This is less the case for other professions. According to a Yougov poll, 66% of Britons support the nurses’ strike, compared to just 43% for rail workers and 49% for postal workers.

The public was particularly sensitive to testimony from nurses on the strike line who said they needed food banks because their annual wages – £34,000 on average – did not allow them to live decently. Their union has given the government 48 hours to respond or the strike could continue into January.

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