The impact of strike action on the NHS
Industrial action across multiple sectors has dominated headlines over the last few months. And not just the headlines, but meetings, plans, conversations and debate.
Strike action couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for the NHS, but we hoped a compromise would be reached by now to bring an end to the dispute. While this continues, the NHS will struggle to break out of the vicious cycle it’s in. A huge amount of planning and effort has been put in to manage disruption and minimise harm to patients, but there’s a cumulative effect and the longer strike action goes on, the more disruption we’ll see for patients, staff and the wider health and care system.
In recent weeks, there was a feeling of light at the end of the tunnel when all but one union paused action to ballot members on the Welsh Government’s latest pay offer for NHS staff. NHS leaders were disappointed to hear that, after some positive progress was made in this dispute, stalemate seems to have been reached once again with several unions. But this is not the end.
The resource that goes into planning for the safe delivery of care on a strike day is difficult to quantify.
It’s important to note that disruption from industrial action is not just felt on strike days themselves, but in the days and weeks before and after it takes place. The resource that goes into planning for the safe delivery of care on a strike day is difficult to quantify. Just one element of this is rearranging hundreds of appointments, scans and operations for patients who may already have been waiting a long time to receive care. For example, on the first day of strike action by members of the Royal College of Nursing in December, over 250 operations were cancelled and almost 2,000 appointments were postponed. We have had a further ten days of action in Wales since then, counting each union individually.
On Monday 20 February 2023, we saw members from two ambulance unions in Wales take simultaneous strike action for the first time, followed by a further two days of action by one. There’s no arguing that this was incredibly challenging for the service – probably the most challenging day of strike action so far in terms of available staff, particularly in relation to depleted staffing in control rooms answering emergency calls and the ability to dispatch.
The NHS is nothing without its staff, and health and care leaders feel strongly that staff need to feel valued and fairly rewarded for their hard work and commitment to going above and beyond for patients.
NHS leaders know that the decision to strike is not one staff will have taken lightly and understand staff who say they no longer feel able to provide the level of care that their patients need and deserve because of the pressure on the system. As we’ve said throughout the pandemic, the NHS is nothing without its staff, and health and care leaders feel strongly that staff need to feel valued and fairly rewarded for their hard work and commitment to going above and beyond for patients.
Ultimately, the longer this escalating dispute goes on for, the harder it will be for the system to tackle waiting lists and, more urgently, ensure patients get the emergency care they need. Therefore, we urge governments and all partners across the UK to leave no stone unturned in seeking a resolution to end these harmful disputes. NHS staff, organisations and the governments want to ensure the public get the care that they need – we all need to remember what the NHS is here to do and we must ensure staff are enabled and equipped to deliver.