Britain is bracing for one of the most disruptive weeks of strike action in recent history after the government signalled its determination to face down the unions despite calls for pay negotiations from health leaders and some Conservative MPs.
Nurses, ambulance workers, customs and immigration staff, postal and rail workers will all walk out in the coming days.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak faces a mounting challenge in dealing with the strikes. Some Tory MPs have urged the government to reopen talks on nurses’ pay after health leaders warned that ongoing disruption within the NHS could jeopardise public safety.
Nurses’ union leaders have raised the pressure on Downing Street by threatening further walkouts next year.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said ministers would have a 48-hour window after Tuesday’s strikes to engage with pay talks, after which the union would announce more widespread strike action in the new year.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, urged trade unions and the government to “try to find a way through”, warning that this week’s strikes pose a risk to patient safety.
Health secretary Steve Barclay is expected to write to the RCN ahead of Tuesday’s industrial action. However, there was no sign of his having shifted position and officials close to him dismissed reports that the government was considering offering a one-off lump sum to nurses.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said on Sunday that the government’s door was always “open to engagement with the unions”. But he stood by the decision by ministers to stick with recommendations in July from the Independent NHS Pay Review Body for a £1,400 increase for most NHS staff.
“We will be resolute in response to this, because it would be irresponsible to allow public sector pay and inflation to get out of control,” Dowden told the BBC.
Sunak is facing growing unease within his parliamentary party over his handling of the industrial disputes.
Caroline Nokes on Sunday became the latest Tory to urge ministers to “get back round the table” with the RCN. “There is a real merit in having another look at negotiations and seeing where they get to,” she told the BBC.
This sentiment has been echoed by senior Conservatives such as former justice minister Robert Buckland, former Tory party chair Jake Berry and chair of the health and social care select committee Steve Brine.
Some Tory MPs are nervous about how the disruption is playing out among the public. “There is more sympathy for nurses and ambulance workers — which is inevitably tricky for Rishi,” a senior Tory said.
A survey by Opinium found that around 50 per cent of those polled supported the government negotiating on pay, even if the consequence meant offering higher pay packages than recommended by the independent body.
“The question is the public resolve and whether people get fed up with striking workers and start to question the government’s strategy or that of the unions,” another Conservative parliamentarian said.
Some MPs — even those backing Sunak’s approach — believe the government will be forced to relent on some issues eventually given the multitude of strikes.
“In practical terms the government needs to be seen to have won at least one industrial dispute,” one former minister said. “If they are seen to be hardline in one area such as rail unions they can then be flexible on another such as health.”