he NHS is facing an “incredibly challenging and disrupted” week, a health leader has warned, as nurses suggested strikes could potentially last six months.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, urged the Government and unions to come to an agreement on pay as she said the nurse strike on Tuesday and one by ambulance workers on Wednesday would have an impact on patients.
It comes as Patricia Marquis, the England director for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the union did not want protracted strikes but its mandate covered the next six months.
Ms Cordery told BBC Breakfast NHS trust leaders “genuinely understand why staff are choosing to strike, so I think they would urge the Government and the unions to get round the table and discuss pay”.
She added: “Trust leaders across both hospitals and ambulance services will be doing everything that they can to put in place services that keep patients and the public as safe as possible.
“So it’s really important that people do remember that. And 999 calls that affect life and limb, those real emergencies will be answered.
“That’s the most important thing to say. However, it’s worth remembering that this is going to be an incredibly challenging and disrupted week, not only because we have the ambulance service coming out on strike across nearly every region, but also because we’ve got these sequential strikes.
“So we’ve got nurses’ industrial action on Tuesday, and then ambulance services on Wednesday, and I think one will impact the other.”
Ms Cordery said negotiations are continuing nationally and locally between unions and ambulance services to work out which incidents should be exempt from strike action.
All category 1 calls (the most life-threatening such as cardiac arrest) will be responded to, while some ambulance trusts have agreed exemptions with unions for specific incidents within category 2 (serious conditions, such as stroke or chest pain).
None of our members want to be on strike. This isn’t something they have chosen to do lightly. The Government has been completely intransigent here
Asked if people should make their own way to hospital, Ms Cordery said: “If someone has a life and limb emergency, they should call 999.
“And, if it’s not that kind of emergency, they will be told to seek different advice…
“If they think they’ve got the kind of emergency where they would usually call 111, then they should do that, or they should consult a GP or pharmacist…
“There may well be alternative advice available to them that wouldn’t ordinarily be the case. So perhaps they will be advised to get themselves to hospital, but they should wait to seek that medical advice.”
Unison union general secretary Christina McAnea said ambulance staff are taking industrial action on Wednesday because ministers refuse to negotiate with them on pay.
So far, the Government has stood firm on its stance on pay, saying above inflation rises demanded by trade unions are unaffordable.
We do not want to see protracted strikes, nor do we want to see further disruption to the NHS and to the services that patients need
Ms McAnea told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “None of our members want to be on strike. This isn’t something they have chosen to do lightly. The Government has been completely intransigent here.
“We have been calling on them for weeks and weeks to sit down and have a proper discussion about how we try and resolve this dispute, and they adamantly refuse to do that. They will not talk to us about the elephant in the room that is pay.”
Elsewhere, Ms Marquis from the RCN told Times Radio that nurses could strike for up to six months if the Government does not sit down to negotiate pay.
“Sadly if there is no resolution, then our members have taken a vote to take strike action and the mandate that lasts for six months,” she said.
“I really hope and I pray that that is not what happens.
“We do not want to see protracted strikes, nor do we want to see further disruption to the NHS and to the services that patients need.”
Asked to confirm if that meant strikes could last six months, she added: “That’s how long our mandate lasts. We do not want it to last that long. Not at all.
“What we want is a really swift resolution as quickly as possible…”
The RCN has highlighted the 47,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. Ms Marquis said nurses were continuing to leave the health service “in droves”.
She said operations were being cancelled and people are waiting in ambulances “every single day” within the NHS, with the service already in “complete crisis”.
She added: “At the moment, the biggest problem we have is not what our ask is, it’s having someone to talk to.
“And that’s really what we’re urging the Government and continue to urge the Government to do is be pragmatic, be reasonable, don’t get entrenched.
“And please come and have a conversation with us about pay and debate about safe staffing.
“All of our members and all of us want to find a resolution. If we can avoid the strikes even tomorrow, we will. But the only way to do that is by having a conversation about what this is about, which is pay and safe staffing.”
Data collected by the NHS after last week’s nursing strike showed that 16,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries were cancelled and needed to be rescheduled in England – 54,000 less than the Government suggested.
Across England, 9,999 staff were absent from work due to the strike.
The figures were published after health minister Maria Caulfield said around 70,000 appointments in England would be lost.
The RCN, which is calling for a 5% above inflation pay rise, has vowed to stage a fresh wave of more severe strikes in January if ministers do not open talks.
But Health Secretary Steve Barclay has said the union should respect the independence of the NHS pay review body, which has set pay for nurses at about £1,400 more a year (at least a 4% rise).
Over the weekend, Mr Barclay insisted the RCN’s calls were “not affordable”, stressing the need for a “balance” reflecting taxpayer constraints during a cost-of-living crisis.
It comes as Border Force staff prepare to walk out for eight days from December 23 until New Year’s Eve, while rail workers are preparing to strike again on Christmas Eve.
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