Union leader warns of biggest NHS strikes since 1980s

The leader of Britain’s biggest union has warned that the biggest national strike by NHS workers since the early 1980s could hit the health service this winter if ministers ignore calls to match wages with inflation.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said the union would vote 406,000 members into the NHS across England, Wales and Northern Ireland from October 27, while a ballot of members Scottish was already underway.

Other unions representing NHS workers, including the Royal College of Nursing, are holding their own votes and could join Unison in coordinated action involving 750,000 workers.

Industrial action would lead to the cancellation of operations and appointments, adding to intense strains on health services, with a record 7 million people awaiting hospital treatment.

McAnea said the pressures had become so acute that many parts of the healthcare system were already operating with staffing close to the minimum that would be in place during a strike to keep patients safe.

“We are bleeding staff. The NHS cannot keep staff or recruit,’ McAnea said, adding that paramedics in particular felt the service was already ‘as bad as it got by going on strike’.

The vote comes as Britain enters an ‘autumn of discontent’ with strikes disrupting rail networks, major ports, Royal Mail postal services and 999 emergency call handlers joining the action continuity of the personnel of the BT group.

Last week transport union RMT confirmed it would ask its members to back a further six months of industrial action on the railways. Teachers’ and doctors’ unions are also gearing up to vote for their members, and echoing the past, Unison members at the National Coal Mining Museum voted to strike.

McAnea said no action of this magnitude had taken place since bitter disputes with Margaret Thatcher’s government over nurses’ pay in the early 1980s.

Christina McAnea: ‘We are hemorrhaging staff. The NHS cannot keep staff or recruit’ © Charlie Bibby / FT

The government’s flat rate pay rise of £1,400 earlier this year for all staff covered by the NHS Agenda for Change contract is relatively generous for the lowest paid staff, although wages continue to fall in real terms.

But many professionals with modest salaries – including nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists – would see their pay rise by around 4% under the current offer. By comparison, consumer prices rose 9.9% in the year to August, while average wages, including bonuses, in the private sector rose 6.8%.

Many people on salaries of around £30,000 were exhausted after being regularly asked to work extra shifts and weekends, and ‘really feeling the pinch’, McAnea said, the new concern over rising rates mortgages encouraging some to look for a second job.

New research commissioned by the NHS Confederation has shown that the NHS is a major contributor to the UK economy and that every pound invested in health services generates up to 4 pounds of economic growth.

Speaking ahead of Britain’s annual trade union movement rally at the TUC convention in Brighton on Tuesday, McAnea dismissed comments by Prime Minister Liz Truss telling striking railway staff to ‘get back to work’ so the country can move on. ‘before.

Ministers had yet to respond to her requests for a meeting, she said, contrasting the Westminster government’s approach with those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where ” we are considered part of the social fabric of the country”.

Unions would find ways to operate even if the government continues with plans to raise the thresholds for passing strike bulletins, McAnea suggested, but warned that a separate proposal – requiring unions to submit all employer offers to their members – was impractical.

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