The government is “dangerous, reprehensible and irresponsible” for failing to sit down with nurses to try and avert a strike, Labour has said.
NHS nurses are due to strike next Thursday and on 20 December in a dispute over pay and patient safety.
It is the first time the Royal College of Nursing has staged a national strike in its 106-year history, with up to 100,000 nursing staff expected to down sticks.
Wes Streeting accused ministers of “not having a plan for the NHS this winter” in an interview on Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
‘Dangerous. Reprehensible. Irresponsible’
The shadow health secretary said: “They’re quite happy to see paramedics and nurses go on strike because when the proverbial hits the fan this winter, they are going to blame nurses and paramedics for an NHS crisis which is squarely the fault of a conservative government and 12-years of mismanagement. I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s reprehensible. I think it’s irresponsible.”
He added: “It is completely unreasonable for the government not to want to negotiate.”
The government has said it is for independent pay review bodies to negotiate with nurses.
Dr Emma Runswick, deputy chair of the British Medical Association council, the UK’s doctors’ trade union, said the NHS is in such a poor state that there will be deaths.
“I do think more people will die” because of strikes, she told Sky News. “That’s not something we want… And there are some solutions to that. But currently, the government won’t even speak to us.”
‘Door is open’
James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, rejected claims that the health secretary did not want to talk to nurses.
He insisted that Steve Barclay’s “door was always open”.
The nurses’ union has called for its members to receive a pay rise of at least 17%, claiming they are 20% worse off in real terms, due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.
The strike will cause major disruption, with thousands of operations expected to be postponed at a time when waiting lists are at record levels.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen has said she would be willing to pause the walkouts if the health secretary would agree to talk about the nurses’ pay demands.
Mr Cleverly said independent pay review bodies were created in an apolitical role to resolve differences between what public sectors want and what the government can pay, adding that “in this instance the government has accepted their recommendation fully”.
He said that although he “massively values” the work nurses do, their 19.2% pay rise request would cost around £10bn and “we have to be sensible with our expenditure”.
Mr Streeting said the government was “spoiling for a fight”, but that “patients will rightly blame the government, not the unions, if these strikes go ahead”.
‘Mark of shame’
Kevin Rowan, head of the Trade Unions Congress, which represents all unions, said it was a “mark of shame” for the government that workers who did so much during the pandemic are being forced to take industrial action.
He said unions really want to find a solution but “the government doesn’t seem prepared to do that”.
More NHS strikes are planned this winter, with ambulance staff due to walk out on 21 and 28 December and junior doctors to strike on 9 January.
Asked about the ambulance strikes, Mr Cleverly said: “We want to make sure that people are safe and we very much regret the fact that the ambulance service and other key public services are all going on strike.
“We are looking at contingency planning to make sure that we can keep people safe and people should rely on the NHS, they should call 999 if there is a problem. We will be working to make sure that people are able to rely on emergency services.”
A formal request for troops to drive ambulances during strike action is understood to be just days away.
Five other unions are also balloting for strike action, including midwives, physios and hospital porters.
The nurses’ strike is one of many threatening to deliver a winter of discontent as unions seek pay rises in line with the rate of inflation to help shield their members from the cost of living crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of workers plan to strike in the coming weeks, including Network Rail workers, bus drivers, civil servants, driving examiners, Royal Mail workers, national highway workers and baggage handlers.