LONDON (AFP) – Nurses across England began two days of strikes over pay on Wednesday, threatening fresh disruption for patients in the creaking state-run health service, as new figures showed inflation still surging.
The walkout comes after nurses held their union’s first stoppage in more than a century last month, joining a wave of industrial action by UK public sector workers hit by a cost-of-living crisis driven by spiraling prices.
The latest annual inflation statistics, released early Wednesday, showed they remained close to record highs, with rates easing slightly in December to 10.5 percent, compared with 10.7 percent the previous month.
The main nursing union accuses the government of failing to negotiate seriously on improving their pay deal for the current year, which they say is crucial given the economic situation.
“We don’t want to do this. This is the last thing we want to do because... we’re caring people,” mental health support worker Steven Bedford said from a picket line outside a south London hospital.
“We know A&E (Accident and Emergency) is probably struggling today. But we have to make a point. We have to make a stand at some point and hopefully something can happen.”
The latest walkout piles further pressure on the National Health Service (NHS) at a time of peak demand due to winter illnesses and lengthening waiting lists for treatment caused by Covid cancellations and under-staffing.
Further strikes are planned for February 6 and 7 by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, which has said they will “be at the highest intensity” in its history.
Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has insisted recession-hit Britain cannot afford to reopen public sector pay already set for this fiscal year, which ends on March 31.
“Unaffordable pay hikes will mean cutting patient care and stoking the inflation that would make us all poorer,” health minister Steve Barclay wrote in The Independent on Wednesday.
Two days of strikes by nurses in England and Wales in December led to the cancellation of some 30,000 elective procedures and outpatient appointments, according to Barclay.
But Pat Cullen, head of the RCN, said nurses are “the voice of the patient” and has repeatedly urged the government to negotiate over pay to retain beleaguered staff and attract new recruits.
This week’s walkout could cause 4,500 cancelled operations and 25,000 cancelled outpatient appointments, the NHS estimates.
Despite the disruption, the nurses’ plight has prompted public sympathy amid broad discontent over the government’s management of the NHS.
A YouGov poll published on Tuesday suggested 63 percent supported their strike.