Nurses threaten to double down on strike action while workers protest over anti-strike bill

A wave of industrial action which has swept across the country could escalate unless there is a breakthrough to end bitter disputes over pay and conditions, unions have warned.

Nurses are to walk out on Wednesday and Thursday, and have threatened that double their number will be asked to strike next month if progress isn't made in negotiations.

Education unions are to reveal the results of further ballots today, while the GMB is also to meet to decide if it is to call more strikes for its ambulance members.

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The Health Secretary is said to be privately wavering despite reports of a cabinet rift, with the Government continuing to insist that pay claims are unaffordable.

Nursing staff on the picket line outside the Leeds General Infirmary in December. PIC: Tony JohnsonNursing staff on the picket line outside the Leeds General Infirmary in December. PIC: Tony Johnson
Nursing staff on the picket line outside the Leeds General Infirmary in December. PIC: Tony Johnson

The Health Secretary has reportedly told unions he wants to persuade the Treasury on more pay for this year for all NHS staff except doctors. Unison’s Sara Gorton revealed that Steve Barclay’s tone has been “very different” in negotiations this week, and he privately told unions he wanted to secure a better pay offer.

Ms Gorton told The Observer newspaper that Mr Barclay had “talked about asking us to help make the case to the Treasury for the investment needed”.

There are suggestions this has prompted a Cabinet split, with the Prime Minister and Chancellor refusing to move from their stance that the Government cannot make health workers an improved offer.

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The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen described the Prime Minister's position in the deadlock as "baffling, reckless and politically ill-considered".

She said: "The public supports nurses because of just how much nurses give to the public."

Without value and recognition they will "keep leaving in record numbers", she warned: "The nurse shortage costs lives - Sunak cannot put a price on a safe NHS."

Union members are to protest outside Parliament today as MPs consider new laws that would restrict workers' right to strike by imposing minimum service levels.

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Opponents have called the legislation an "horrific attack" on workers' rights and said the Government is acting like "a dictator".

Striking ambulance staff, meanwhile, have said they feel "demonised" by the Government's attempts to paint them as "uncaring about safety standards".

It comes after Mr Sunak described the widespread action as "terrifying". In an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the GMB union urged the Government to "talk to us and stop attacking us".

Mr Barclay, defending the bill, said it would give the public "much needed assurance that a certain level of urgent and time critical care will always continue."

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The Health Secretary told union bosses that the "voluntary arrangements" put in place during recent ambulance strikes were not enough to "ensure patient and public safety".

In a letter to the GMB yesterday he said industrial action had the potential to "put lives at immediate risk".

"During recent action I have not been reassured that the current system of voluntary arrangements can be relied upon to ensure patient and public safety," he said.

He denied that the proposed legislation would hinder employees' right to strike, but instead "reflect that some individuals will not be able to strike at certain times".

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Under the new legislation, employers would be required to issue work notices seven days before strike action and only after consulting with trade unions.

Mr Sunak has said he hopes to "find a way through" the deadlock, telling broadcasters on Friday: "The discussions are ongoing and hopefully we can find a way through."

Comment: Page 12.