Nurses across the UK will go on strike for the first time over two days in the fortnight before Christmas after ministers rejected their pleas for formal talks over NHS pay.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said its members would stage national strikes – the first in its 106-year history – on 15 and 20 December. Senior sources said the industrial action was expected to last for 12 hours on both days – most likely between 8am and 8pm.
The unprecedented national industrial action will seriously disrupt care and is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by other NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
The RCN said it had confirmed the dates after the UK government turned down its offer of formal, detailed negotiations as an alternative to industrial action.
“Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time,” said the RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen. “My offer of formal negotiations was declined and, instead, ministers have chosen strike action.
“They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute. Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”
The strikes will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The RCN will announce which particular NHS employers will be affected next week, when formal notifications are submitted, it said.
In Scotland, the RCN has paused announcing strike action after the Scottish government reopened NHS pay negotiations.
The strikes are taking place after a series of individual ballots were held at NHS trusts and boards, rather than one national ballot.
At more than 40% of England’s hospitals, mental health and community services nurses will not be entitled to strike because the turnout was too low in those ballots. Action can happen, however, at all of Northern Ireland’s health boards and all but one in Wales.
On Friday, Cullen said the UK government had chosen strikes over listening to nursing staff, adding: “If you turn your back on nurses, you turn your back on patients.”
She said she did not recognise figures put forward by the health secretary suggesting the pay demands from the RCN amounted to a 19.2% pay rise costing £10bn a year.
“If [health secretary Steve] Barclay wishes to meet with me, get round the table and stop the spin and start to speak, he can avert these strikes,” she said. “But my door is wide open night and day. I will make myself available, as will my team on behalf of our nursing staff.
“That option isn’t available to me at this time and consequently he has chosen strikes over speaking to me.”
Earlier this month, the RCN announced that nursing staff at the majority of NHS employers across the UK had voted to take strike action over pay and patient safety.
The RCN said that despite a pay rise of about £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses were worse off by 20% in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010. It said the economic argument for paying nursing staff fairly was clear when billions of pounds were being spent on agency staff to plug workforce gaps.
It added that in the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK had left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, with poor pay contributing to staff shortages across the country, which it warned were affecting patient safety. There are 47,000 unfilled NHS registered nurse posts in England alone.
Other health unions are also balloting workers for industrial action. They have been warning for months that workers are quitting in huge numbers over pay and low morale, leading to staff shortages in hospitals and other parts of the NHS.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth is the health secretary refusing to negotiate with nurses? Patients already can’t get treated on time, strike action is the last thing they need, yet the government is letting this happen. Patients will never forgive the Conservatives for this negligence.”
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, said he was “hugely grateful” for the hard work of nurses and deeply regretted the industrial action. However, he refused to open formal talks and described the RCN’s demands as “not affordable”.
“Our priority is keeping patients safe,” he added. “The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimise disruption and ensure emergency services continue to operate.”