Nurses in England will stage fresh walkouts on Wednesday marking an escalation of industrial action across the economy that has already caused more disruption than at any point in the past 30 years.
About 467,000 working days were lost to labour disputes in November last year alone — the most in any single month since the public sector pensions strikes of 2011, according to official figures released on Tuesday. Over the six months from June to November 2022, more than 1.6mn days were lost to labour disputes, the most in any one year since 1990.
Unions are now set to ramp up their campaigns for better pay as strikes spread from the rail and postal sectors to the NHS, state education and across government departments and other public bodies.
Tens of thousands of nurses at 55 NHS trusts — or about one-quarter of the total — in England will walk out on Wednesday and Thursday. The Royal College of Nursing has also set dates for two further strikes in early February if pay talks do not progress by the end of this month.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen described this week’s action as “a modest escalation before a sharp increase in under three weeks from now”, adding: “People aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because people are dying.”
Health secretary Steve Barclay said patients would “understandably be worried by the prospect of further strike action by nurses”.
Barclay said about 30,000 elective procedures and outpatient appointments had been cancelled over the previous two days of nurses’ strikes. But he added that he had held “constructive talks” with unions about the 2023-24 pay process and would continue that dialogue.
The GMB union is due to announce new strike dates by ambulance staff on Wednesday despite criticism from ministers who have accused it and other unions of endangering public safety by agreeing “life and limb” cover at local, rather than national, level.
Teachers, train drivers, 70,000 university staff and roughly 100,000 civil servants are among those set to take action on February 1 on a national day of protest called by the Trades Union Congress.
The umbrella body for the union movement has urged the public to support the right to strike in the face of new government legislation that would mandate minimum service levels across key sectors during walkouts.
A further six days of national and regional strikes by teachers will affect most schools in England and Wales from next month, in the absence of a move to improve on their 2022-23 pay deal.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan said ahead of a meeting with unions on Wednesday that teachers “don’t need to strike to get my attention” but Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she was “not engaging with the reality of the situation”.
Meanwhile, the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said high-flying graduate recruits to the Fast Stream had also voted to take industrial action. It said the action had been prompted by pay remaining flat for five years and falling behind that of colleagues in similar jobs and graduates at other top employers.
Train drivers are also set to stage two more days of highly disruptive strikes on February 1 and 3, deepening a bitter dispute, after their union rejected a pay offer from the rail industry.
Drivers’ union Aslef said on Tuesday that an 8 per cent, two-year pay offer tied to big changes in working practices from the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, was “clearly unacceptable”.
“They want to rip up our terms and conditions in return for a real-terms pay cut,” said Mick Whelan, the union’s general secretary.
Aslef rejected the offer despite signs of progress in separate negotiations between train companies and two other unions.
The RMT and TSSA unions last week agreed to “work jointly” with the RDG towards a pay offer to put to members, although the RMT said on Tuesday that its train driver members would strike on the same days as Aslef next month.