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24.09.14

NHS to face week of industrial action by up to 500,000 staff

The NHS is to be hit by industrial action over pay for the first time in 32 years as up to nine unions representing 500,000 NHS staff prepare to strike.

Staff will stage a four-hour walkout between 7am and 11am on Monday 13 October. This will be followed by four days of action short of a strike, such as insisting on taking statutory rest and meal breaks and not working unpaid overtime, between Tuesday 14 October and Friday 17 October. Unison announced the plans after a ballot of its 300,000 NHS members saw 68% of those taking part vote for strike action and 88% for action short of a strike.

In addition to the four-hour strike on 13 October, members in the Ambulance Service will be called to work no overtime during the period 14-17 October.

Unison head of health, Christina McAnea, said: “We know health workers don’t take strike action lightly or often; the last action over pay was 32 years ago. But we also know a demoralised and demotivated workforce isn’t good for patients."

Unison is likely to be joined in the week of protest by up to eight other unions, subject to the outcome of pending ballots. Unite, which represents 100,000 NHS personnel, and the GMB and Royal College of Midwives, which each have about 30,000 members in the NHS in England, are all polling their members. Those ballot results, due over the next two weeks, are expected to produce majorities in favour of industrial action.

The action is being taken over the government’s decision to institute a below-inflation 1% non-consolidated pay rise, which the 600,000 staff who receive progression pay increases over 1% will not receive. The government ignored the recommendations of the NHS Pay Review Body, which specifically said that a non-consolidated pay award could have an “adverse impact on staff engagement and motivation” and recommended against it. 

Union sources say that nothing will be done during industrial action to compromise patient safety. Nurses belonging to Unison who are looking after acutely-ill patients in ICU will keep working, as will members of the Royal College of Midwives caring for women who are in labour during the action.

The action is likely cause the NHS a lot of difficulty. With the rising demand for care the service is increasingly busy and the withdrawal of goodwill from staff over the four days, such as by insisting on receiving overtime payments which they usually forego as extra hours are so common, may result in trusts having to hire temporary staff to cover shortages.

Managers in Partnership, the union representing NHS managers, and the British Association of Occupational Therapists are also likely to strike on 13 October, if their members endorse the action.

Legally, unions planning any form of industrial action have to give all NHS employers affected by it at least a week’s notice.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We are disappointed that Unison is planning industrial action and has rejected our proposals to give NHS staff at least 1% additional pay this year and at least a further 1% next year.

"NHS staff are our greatest asset and we know they are working extremely hard. This is why despite tough financial times, we've protected the NHS budget and now have 13,500 more clinical staff than in 2010. We want to protect these increases and cannot afford incremental pay increases – which disproportionately reward the highest earners – on top of a general pay rise without risking frontline NHS jobs.

"We remain keen to meet with the unions to discuss how we can work together to make the NHS pay system fairer and more affordable.”

When Unison’s ballot result was first announced, Gill Bellord, director of employment relations and reward at NHS Employers, urged unions to give more than the statutory seven days notice. She said: “This yes-vote is disappointing for the NHS and will concern thousands of patients who rely on its services, as well as many staff. But we remain hopeful that a decision will be made not to proceed with strike action.

“We completely understand the frustration of many staff following a prolonged period of pay restraint but patient safety must always be our first priority. Employers need to maximise their ability to retain staff and plan changes to how they work in response to the changing needs of patients, and major financial challenges have made stark choices inevitable.

 “I would strongly urge unions to take patients out of this dispute and instead continue constructive discussions, exploring ways to come out of this period of pay restraint in a sustainable way.”

(Image: Library image from strike action by Yorkshire Ambulance Service staff in April 2013 c. Lynne Cameron/PA Wire)

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