NHS hospitals will do all they can to ‘minimize harm to patients’ if nurses go on strike, a national health official has said, adding that the industrial action is not limited to pay.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents most NHS organisations, said there are national and regional plans to minimize the impact on patients, but operations and appointments allowed should be canceled or postponed.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay will speak to Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union behind the strikes, on Thursday as he struggles to avoid industrial action .
Mr Barclay was willing to discuss how working conditions can be improved, but was ‘not negotiating’ on wages, according to the PA news agency, as nurses are demanding a raise of at least 15%.
Mr Taylor warned that the industrial action would be “a challenge” for both the health service and NHS leaders.
“We are already dealing with the gap that exists between the demand that is currently on the public health service. We have to meet that demand, and we all know we are heading into what is already a very difficult winter,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“Then we add industrial action to that and it will be extremely difficult work.
“The priority will be to try to minimize harm to patients.”
He said the RCN has promised to maintain emergency and critical care “but there will be an impact if there is industrial action in terms of canceled appointments, canceled procedures, and NHS leaders will do everything we can to minimize this and to ensure that patients are kept informed of what is happening.”
Asked about the current state of nursing in the NHS, Mr Taylor said ‘we are acutely aware that health workers take advocacy action as a last resort – it’s very rare’.
He said the issue was mainly about salary, but “it’s important to understand that every time you talk to nurses they’ll say salary is part of the challenge, but it’s also about workload, of the fact that there are almost 50,000 vacancies for nursing in the NHS.
“Even if there were no industrial action, we would still have a very big problem with how we recruit, retain and motivate NHS staff.”
The health chief said workers have “been waiting a very long time” for a properly costed workforce strategy from the government.
There have also been “briefings in recent days about whether there will be a wage freeze or wage cap in the public sector next year – that kind of background is not helpful to these talks”.
Mr Barclay was understood to be keen to discuss improvements to working conditions such as on the lists, but wanted to stick to the NHS pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 raise rather than demand 5% above MRC inflation.
A DHSC source said: ‘Steve is very responsive, he wants to hear from them about their concerns. He is very focused on the workforce and wants to do everything we can to attract more nurses.
But on wages they said: ‘We are not negotiating because we have accepted the recommendation of the wage review body.
Patricia Marquis, RCN director for England, told BBC Breakfast that current NHS services were ‘unsafe’ and the government ‘didn’t listen’ to what nursing staff said.
She said some services must continue during the strike to keep patients safe “and we will agree with the employers what they are and what staff should be working”.
She added that employers across most of the UK need 14 days’ notice to strike, adding: “What I can say is that we intend to take action certainly before the end of this year.”
Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, acting chief executive of NHS providers, was asked on Sky News if she was in favor of the strike.
She said: “I think what we need to remember are… the conditions that led the nurses to this action.
“We fully understand how they feel – below inflation, the rising cost of living…we’ve heard these stories of nurses using food banks, many trusts are setting up food banks. ‘school uniforms, for example, to support nurses and others in basic living costs.
“We also have to remember that the NHS has been struggling for a long time in terms of staff shortages and workloads which have really exploded, so we understand the circumstances.”
She urged ministers to talk to unions to reach a resolution. “We have to see the government come around the table,” she added.
Ms Cullen said on Wednesday night that politicians should “get around the table” and start addressing nurses’ concerns to avoid a strike.
The union boss said members had been “pushed” into a position where striking was their only option, adding that nurses could no longer be “ignored” by ministers.
Industrial action is expected to take place before the end of the year at some of the UK’s biggest hospitals, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ opposite the Houses of Parliament, Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, University Hospital Wales and the Royal Victoria of Belfast.
The RCN announced on Wednesday that its members in the majority of NHS employers across the UK have backed industrial action.
During the industrial action, the health service will shift its focus to treating emergency patients in a “survival care model”, with sources saying some hospitals on strike days will have similar staffing to Christmas.
Some of the most serious cancer cases could still be treated, while urgent diagnostic procedures and assessments will be put in place if they are needed to gather data on life-threatening conditions or those that could lead to permanent disability.
Other health worker unions, including Unison and the GMB, will announce the outcome of strike votes before the end of the month among staff, including ambulance and paramedics, hospital porters and cleaners.
Physiotherapists began voting on industrial action on Monday, while a ballot for midwives opens on Friday.
Unions are protesting a pay award earlier this year of £1,400 for most NHS workers, with the RCN calling for a 5% raise above the rate of inflation.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has called the decision to take industrial action ‘disappointing’, insisting the RCN’s demands are ‘out of step’ with the economic situation facing the UK .