Nursing Union Leader Accuses Government of Issuing ‘Blatant Threat’ Over Legal Action

Nursing Union Leader Accuses Government of Issuing ‘Blatant Threat’ Over Legal Action
Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) at the Florence Nightingale statue on the picket line as nurses take industrial action over pay near the Florence Nightingale Community Hospital in Derby on Jan. 18, 2023. (Jacob King/PA Media)
Lily Zhou

A nursing union leader has accused Steve Barclay of issuing a “blatant threat” to nurses after the health secretary launched a legal action over a planned strike.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) last week announced new strike dates after its members in England voted to reject the government’s pay offer.

But Barclay on Friday said he had sent a pre-action letter after NHS leaders disputed the legality of the strike, saying unlawful strikes would put nurses’ registration at risk.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme on Saturday, RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said the union would “work within the parameters of the law” if the court decides the strike is illegal, but the government “should really see sense, calm this down and withdraw their position, and get in and start negotiating with us.”

The government in March offered a pay deal to nurses including a 5 percent pay increase for this year (2023/24), a one-off payment for last year that equals 2 percent of one’s salary, and a one-off “NHS backlog bonus.”

All five unions recommended members to accept the deal, with Unison members doing so on April 14 and three unions still running the ballot, but RCN members last week voted to reject it.

Following the vote, the RCN announced new strike dates. Nursing members in 130 NHS trusts across England are set to walk out between 8 p.m. on April 30 and 8 p.m. on May 2. The planned action is also escalated, including nursing staff in emergency departments, intensive care units, cancer care, and some other services for the first time.

However, the RCN’s current six-month mandate to organise strikes will technically run out. According to the RCN, the initial vote to strike was closed on mid-day Nov. 2 last year.

NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer on Friday said they received legal advice saying the RCN’s mandate expires at midnight on May 1, but the union had rejected their view.

After Mortimer wrote to Barclay on Friday afternoon, the health secretary said he will take legal action.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay arrives in Downing Street ahead of a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on Dec. 13, 2022. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Health Secretary Steve Barclay arrives in Downing Street ahead of a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on Dec. 13, 2022. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
“Following a request from NHS Employers, I have regretfully provided notice of my intent to pursue legal action to ask the courts to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s upcoming strike action planned for [April 30] to [May 2] to be unlawful,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.

“The government firmly believes in the right to strike, but it is vital that any industrial action is lawful and I have no choice but to take action,” he added.

The minister said including emergency and cancer care staff will “put patient safety at risk.” He also said the legal action “seeks to protect nurses who could otherwise be asked to take part in unlawful activity that could in turn put their professional registration at risk and would breach the requirements set out in the nursing code of conduct.”

Commenting on Barclay’s statement, Cullen said the previous strikes, which exempted emergency staff, were done “in the most safe and effective way” and that the union “will certainly not” put members or patients at risk.

“But for Steve Barclay to come out yesterday and say that he was doing this to protect the registration of nurses, well you can see how nurses interpreted that,” she said.

“That was a blatant threat to our nursing staff to say, ‘If you don’t stop this and accept my pay offer then your registration perhaps maybe at risk’. We will never put our nurses at risk and we certainly won’t put their registration at risk,” she added.

The union boss said the union won’t do anything illegal if the strike is deemed unlawful, but said that would be “an even darker day for this government.”

Cullen said the union had been planning with NHS England and other service leaders for the potential industrial action next month, including ensuring there are protocols for escalation to ensure patient safety is not put at risk.

Meanwhile, health workers in Wales are being balloted on an improved pay offer.

Unite is not recommending acceptance of the proposed deal but said strike action will be paused while voting is held over the next month.

The union said the pay offer falls short of inflation and does not address the concerns of its members over the cost of living, but it described it as a “significant improvement” on what was previously proposed by the Welsh government.

Unison’s head of bargaining and campaigns in Wales, Jess Turner, said: “It has taken months of talks in Wales to achieve this new improved pay offer for staff. We know they deserve more but this offer is a significant step forward and the best that could be achieved through negotiation.

Turner said Unison recommends members take the offer to avoid the risk that the offer would be withdrawn.

Lily Zhou is an Irish-based reporter covering UK news for The Epoch Times.
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