Cancer care will stop, leaving patients unable to receive some treatments, when the first of planned nurses’ strikes begin next month.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is close to finalizing which areas of cancer services will be affected and which will be protected when nurses take strike action on December 15 and 20, the first in the union’s 106-year history.
Cancer care includes many types of procedures, including diagnostic tests such as scans and X-rays, chemotherapy or radiotherapy sessions, and emergency surgery to remove tumors.
RCN members voted to strike at most hospitals and other NHS care providers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in those days in what union sources say was a show of force to ministers over their demand for a 5% wage increase on top of inflation.
High-ranking sources said the strike was expected to last 12 hours on both days – most likely between 8 am and 8 pm.
The unprecedented work stoppage will seriously disrupt care and is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today show on Friday that “services such as oncology will be restricted or exempt from any strike action”, but added that it was too early to say whether services such as scans and scans The other will stop or move forward.
Asked about a colonoscopy, a diagnostic test used to screen for bowel cancer, Cullen said, “Every detail is being worked out.”
But in an apparent acknowledgment that some cancer care will be suspended on strike days, she added: “Services that are not considered life-sustaining or emergency services will not be curtailed. Those that fall into those particular descriptions will be restricted.”
The RCN is close to completing a detailed list of services across the full range of NHS medical care that will and will not be affected. This list is due to be finalized early next week ahead of meetings at which NHS bodies in each of the three countries will be briefed.
RCN said it confirmed the dates after the UK government rejected its offer of formal and detailed negotiations as an alternative to a strike.
“It has been more than two weeks since ministers confirmed that our members felt so wronged that they would strike for the first time,” Cullen said. “My offer of formal negotiations was rejected and instead the ministers chose to go on strike.
They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute. The nursing staff is tired enough of being taken for granted, enough of low wages and insecure levels of staffing, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”
Strikes happen after a series of individual ballots taken in NHS boxes and boards, rather than one national ballot.
In more than 40% of England’s hospitals, mental health and community services, nurses would not be entitled to strike because turnout was so low on those cards. However, actions can be taken in all Northern Ireland health boards and in all but one of Welsh boards.
Cullen said the UK government had chosen to strike rather than listen to the nursing staff, adding: “If you turn your back on the nurses, you turn your back on the patients.”
It said it did not acknowledge figures provided by the Health Secretary which suggested wage demands from the RCN amounted to a pay rise of 19.2% at a cost of £10bn a year.
“if [the health secretary Steve] Barclay would like to meet me, and turn around the table and stop turning and begin to speak, and he can avoid these blows,” she said. “But my door is wide open day and night. I will make myself available, as well as my team on behalf of our nursing staff.”
The RCN said that despite a pay increase of around £1,400 in the summer, experienced nurses had been 20% worse off in real terms due to successive awards under inflation rates since 2010. It said the economic case for paying nursing staff was fairly straightforward. When billions of pounds were spent on agency staff to fill manpower gaps.
In the past year, she said, 25,000 nursing staff across the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s register, with poor wages contributing to staff shortages across the country, which she said affected patient safety. There are 47,000 NHS Registered Nurse vacancies in England alone.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “Why on earth does the health minister refuse to negotiate with the nurses? Patients can’t really be treated on time. A strike is the last thing they need, but the government is letting it happen. Patients will never forgive the Tories for this neglect.” .
Barclay said he was “extremely grateful” for the nurses’ hard work and deeply regretted the strike. However, he refused to open formal talks and called the RCN’s demands “unreasonable”.
“Our priority is keeping patients safe,” he said. “The NHS has tried and tested plans in place to minimize disruption and ensure emergency services can continue to operate.”