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How Will NHS Strikes Affect Healthcare Delivery in the UK?

The so-called “winter of discontent’ describes the period between November 1978 and February 1979, when there were widespread strikes carried out by private, and later public, sector trade unions in the pursuit of pay rises for their members.

Of course, rampant inflation, rising interest rates and quantitative easing all provided a backdrop for these strikes which ran throughout the public sector, as the then Labour government struggled to manage a struggling economy.

Fast forward 44 years and a similar set of circumstances is unfolding, with both clinical and administrative NHS staff now threatening to strike and follow in the wake of rail and postal workers. But how will this impact the delivery of healthcare on these shores?

A Look at the Current Situation

Currently, ambulance workers are looking to coordinate a strike with fellow NHS members, including non-medical staff who are looking to take action before Christmas.

Other groups could also join in in the near-term, but what’s behind this desire to take industrial action?

Well, the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) is calling for a 5% pay rise above the rate of inflation, creating a de factor request for an increase in the region of between 16% and 19%).

This follows the sudden surge in inflation that has gripped the UK since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, alongside another below-inflation pay offer from an under-siege government.

According to the RCN, this has followed years of squeezes on nurses’ salaries in particular, with pay in real terms and accounting for inflation falling by 6% on average between 2011 and 2021 (compared with a 4.6% drop across the whole of the UK workforce).

What’s the Impact on the NHS?

While emergency care provisions will continue during the NHS strikes, elective surgeries and operations (apart from those related to cancer) are likely to be called off when nurses take to the picket line.

The reason for this is that staffing levels will resemble some weekends and Bank Holidays during strike action, allowing for an essential level of healthcare to be delivered while elective treatments are postponed.

The issue here is optics and the long-term effects for the NHS. After all, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and chronic underfunding in real terms has already created record waiting lists six million long in the NHS, and there’s no doubt that strike action will extend this further.

This also increases the risk of medical negligence claims being brought by patients, particularly in instances where treatment is postponed and medical complications ensue as a result.

If NHS departments are stretched further by strike action, we could see inadequate care delivered in some cases or errors made in the delivery of treatment.

The Government’s Response

Of course, the government’s initial pay offer has been rejected by the RCN, although Health Secretary Oliver Dowden claims that talks will continue and that there’s “a contingency plan” for dealing with strike action.

The latter may well be true, but the former will continue to pose an issue with both parties poles apart in their negotiation stances.

Put simply, a nominal pay offer that doesn’t account for inflation will be dismissed out of hand, with the RCN seeking a rise that’s comfortably above the rate of inflation and able to account for years of stagnant pay.

This means that industrial action could continue indefinitely, creating another winter of discontent that may last even longer this time around!