British nurses and ambulance workers plan to go on strike next month, following a three-day strike in December.
But while disputes over wages this year are a major factor in the strikes, union leaders argue there is more to the action than just paychecks.
When will the strikes take place?
In December, thousands of nurses from England, Wales and Northern Ireland restricted their activities twice – on the 15th and 20th – in the first attack of its kind. The Royal College of Nursing has announced two more days of industrial action on the 18th and 19th of January.
Nurses in emergency settings will continue to work, but strikes could have a significant impact in areas like planned care. Tens of thousands of appointments were canceled on strike days in December.
Some 25,000 ambulance workers in England with GMB, Unison and Unite unions also he left on December 21. Crews still responded to life-threatening calls, but responses to calls that were serious, but not immediately life-threatening, varied from region to region.
A second GMB-proposed strike date, December 28, was eventually cancelled. But in January, Unison ambulance workers will strike twice, on the 11th and the 23rd.
Why are health workers on strike?
The industrial action is primarily a wage dispute, but it also reflects the intense working conditions that many workers have experienced since the start of the pandemic and even before.
Although covid-19 is now sending fewer patients to the hospital, experts say the disease has exacerbated existing problems in the public health system of Great Britain.
cost of living crisis
This year, workers in the National Health Service, who are public sector employees, received a pay increase equivalent to approximately 4.75%. This was recommended by an independent government body called the NHS Pay Review Body.
But in recent months, inflation has climbed into double digits as prices for energy and other goods soar, creating a cost-of-living crisis for many. Union leaders argue that the wage deal represents a real pay cut and have called for much higher increases.
They also say raising wages will help shore up a long-depleted workforce; that better wages will improve retention and attract more people to jobs in the health service. In turn, they argue that this will improve patient safety.
The government, on the other hand, argues that raising NHS wages further would be costly and would fuel inflation itself.
Working conditions are also a major factor in the strikes, with many employees feeling burned out and undervalued nearly three years into a pandemic that, along with repeated bouts of increased demand and staff absenteeism, brought numerous reports of aggression of the patient towards the staff.
Difficult working conditions have long been a problem for ambulance workers who, as the Nuffield Trust notesthey tend to experience lower levels of satisfaction than staff in other areas.
This has only intensified as the pressures have increased to extreme levels During the past year. Slower-than-usual hospital discharges have left wards with fewer beds available, slowing admissions from the emergency department and, in turn, slowing the transfer of patients from ambulances. This limits the number of vehicles and equipment available, slowing response times.
Although there are many factors behind these flow problems, the inadequate provision of social care, i.e. nursing home beds and home care, is seen as a key factor. Simply put, some patients who are medically fit to leave may have to wait in the hospital while a social care bed is opened.
The impact of the strikes
The public health system, by far the largest healthcare provider in the UK, is already under great strain with staff shortages and a lack of adequate social care continuing to put pressure on hospitals.
Rising levels of illnesses like the flu and covid-19, as well as scarlet fever and strep throat in children, are also increasing demand for some services.
Hospital leaders helped blunt the impact of the December strikes by trying to discharge patients as quickly as possible and even calling in the military to help drive some ambulances. But each new day of industrial action brings with it security risks, as well as a high probability of canceled appointments.
If wage negotiations are not opened beforehand, similar measures are likely to be needed for the January strikes.