After months of mounting exasperation over working conditions, the National Health Service has gone on strike—a unique event in the history of the UK. Many public services followed suit, forcing the UK government to requisition troops to ensure continuity of service just one week before Christmas.
The threat had been looming for some time. In November, the 300,000-strong Royal College of Nursing announced “industrial action” for the end of the year to protest the deterioration in working conditions, which they said was seriously compromising the quality of patient care. The strike originated in the NHS but has now spread to other sectors: trains, post offices, and passport offices are also affected.
The peak of strike days was reached in October, with 417,000 strike days—a record for the last decade. Strikers are planning more demonstrations in the coming weeks. They are demanding a pay rise to keep up with inflation, which has soared since the start of the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in energy prices which have climbed as much as 11%.
On Sunday, December 19th, the government announced the deployment of 1,200 military personnel to replace the striking ambulance corps and border staff.
The prime minister is currently reluctant to agree to a pay rise—especially a double-digit one as demanded by the strikers—because he believes it would only reinforce the inflationary spiral. Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said, “it would be irresponsible to allow public sector pay and inflation to get out of control,” describing the demands as “unaffordable.”
The government hopes to capitalise on public discontent with train cancellations and cuts to hospital care during the festive period. But opinion polls show that the British public as a whole supports the strikers, especially the RCN strike, for the first time in its 100-year history.
Rachel Ambrose, a 40-year-old nurse, speaks about her discontent in the Washington Post. She believes that the government is abusing the volunteerism of caregivers demonstrated during the COVID epidemic. Doctors and nurses were applauded nightly at the height of the pandemic for their boundless dedication. Today, applause is not enough. “We don’t seek an extravagant lifestyle. We’re nurses. We just want to pay our bills. We want heat,” Rachel Ambrose says.
The government is willing to consider a modest pay rise of about 4.75% for ambulance crews and nurses, but the nurses union is demanding a 19 percent increase.
While extreme emergencies should be dealt with during the strike, the strain on the UK health system as a whole is palpable. 50,000 nurse positions are currently vacant, as the influx of care workers from Eastern Europe has dried up with Brexit, and salaries are not attractive enough to fill the gaps in the profession.