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Nurses’ strikes won only ‘modest progress’ on pay and conditions, says leader

Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen said politicians only did enough to ‘save their skins’ (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen said politicians only did enough to ‘save their skins’ (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Strikes by nurses this year only led to modest progress in pay and staffing in the NHS, according to a union leader.

Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said politicians did enough to “save their own skins, not the revolution needed”.

In a new year message to half a million RCN members, Ms Cullen broadened the union’s campaign for 2024 to include seeking commitments on safe staffing levels as well as a fair pay rise for nursing.

She urged RCN members to “again push ministers further than they want to go”.

There are currently more than 40,000 nursing vacancies in England’s NHS and nursing staff routinely care for 10-15 patients, which the RCN warns is unsafe.

Ms Cullen said the nursing year started with an unprecedented amount of anger as well as optimism.

“We were on picket lines across the country either side of last Christmas and we’d never been louder as a profession – pushed there because nobody was listening but very firmly believing something positive would come out of it all.

“Politicians only granted us modest progress – enough to save their own skins but not the revolution that nursing needs and patients deserve.

Royal College of Nursing survey
Pat Cullen joined RCN members on the picket line outside University College Hospital, London, this year (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“Would we do it over again? Yes, by your actions you forced ministers to announce a top-up on the previous year’s pay settlement and give more than they had wanted to for the current year.

“Me and other RCN negotiators got every penny they were ever going to give – and that was real money in your banks when it’s really been needed most – but their desire to fix nursing was simply not as strong as ours.

“What’s your appetite to campaign for more? Not just a pay rise but a big commitment to improve staffing levels and patient safety.

“2024 is a general election year and every party will be challenged by the RCN to demonstrate clear vision and hard cash for nursing, the NHS and social care. Let’s make sure we again push ministers further than they want to go.”

Reacting to new regulations expected to be laid in Parliament in January relating to strikes by hospital workers, the RCN leader added: “Despite promises earlier this year that the new Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act would not target nursing staff, we’re now faced with proposals for hospital workers that could see them forced to work during strikes or face the sack.”

Unions have pledged to campaign against the controversial new law, which was brought in after an unprecedented 18 months of strikes by hundreds of thousands of workers.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We hugely value the hard work of NHS nurses, which is why we provided a 5% pay rise and two significant one-off awards – worth over £2,000 on average for full-time nurses.

“This deal, which the RCN recommended its members accept, also included a number of commitments to deliver a series of reforms to improve working conditions.

“We have recruited more than 50,000 extra nurses compared to 2019 – hitting our target early – and the Long Term Workforce plan will ensure the NHS has the staff it needs over the next 15 years so patients continue to receive the best possible care.”