owning Street has said it is not too late for trade unions to call off strike action, as the country faces a week of severe disruption to the NHS and other public services.
It comes as the Government continues to resist calls to sit down with the unions to discuss pay and avert the planned strike action, amid warnings of an “incredibly challenging and disrupted” week.
Earlier, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, urged the Government and unions to come to an agreement on pay as she said the nurses’ strike on Tuesday and one by ambulance workers on Wednesday would have an impact on patients.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that the union did not want protracted strikes but its mandate covered the next six months.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman on Monday insisted that the Government was open to further talks, denying that Downing Street had blocked a proposal by Health Secretary Steve Barclay for a one-off payment to NHS staff.
He said: “We would expect, given this late stage, there to be some sort of disruption either way but it is still in the gift of the unions to step back and reconsider their approach.
“We are open to further talks if they are willing to have them. We believe we have taken a fair and reasonable approach throughout, including by accepting the pay body’s recommendation in full.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s second day of strike action, 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.
“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.”
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).
The Government has said that anyone in an emergency should still call 999, with military personnel expected to be drafted in to cover for striking ambulance workers.
The Cobra emergency committee was meeting on Monday morning to discuss the response to the wave of industrial action, with another meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
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
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said ambulance staff are taking industrial action this week because ministers refuse to negotiate with them on pay.
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.”
Patricia Marquis, director for RCN England, 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.”
The RCN has highlighted the 47,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS and Ms Marquis said operations were being cancelled and people are waiting in ambulances “every single day” within the NHS.
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
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.
“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 Mr 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).
Speaking on Monday during a visit to King’s College Hospital in London, he stated his opposition to a 19% pay rise for nurses, saying it was not “reasonable”.
Asked whether ambulances would be available on Wednesday to an elderly person who fell and broke their hip, Mr Barclay said there would be an impact on patients from strike action, adding: “That’s why I’m calling on the trade unions to make good on their statements that they will protect those with life-threatening conditions and emergency responses, ensure we have the cover on Wednesday to respond to those calls.
“That’s what they’ve said publicly. But if, for example, they only allow staff to respond from the picket line, that will add further delay to the response times, which is not in the patients’ interest.”
Downing Street hit out at union leaders ahead of the ambulance strike, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman complaining of a “concerning lack of clarity around the level of care they are willing to provide”.
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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