Health Secretary Steve Barclay is requesting that the High Court consider whether part of the next nurse’s strike is unlawful.
NHS nurses have planned further walkouts which will occur over the Bank Holiday, from 30 April until 2 May. This action will impact vital services such as Accident and Emergency (A&E), cancer wards and intensive care units.
However, the Government wants the High Court to rule on whether the last day of industrial action, Tuesday 2 May, falls outside the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) six-month mandate for action. Steve Barclay’s decision to involve the court follows a letter from hospital bosses as NHS Employers have asked him to check the legality of the walkout.
NHS Employers claim that the ballots closed at midday on 2 November 2022 so action taken on 2 May, the last day of the planned strike, cannot be taken lawfully under the strike mandate. If this is the case, NHS Employers will question the validity of the entire strike, but the Government is only challenging the part of the strike that falls on the 2 May – Steve Barclay said, “despite attempts by my officials to resolve the situation over the weekend, I have been left with no choice but to proceed with legal action”.
“I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law – but the government cannot stand by and let a plainly unlawful strike action go ahead nor ignore the request of NHS Employers. We must also protect nurses by ensuring they are not asked to take part in an unlawful strike.”
Why are nurses striking?
The Government’s offer of a 5.2% pay rise for nurses, along with a one-off payment worth 6% of their annual salary, was rejected by the RCN in a vote 54% to 46%. This decision was made on the basis that the offer was “neither fair nor reasonable” as nurses’ pay has not aligned with inflation for 13 years.
Nurses have already walked-out earlier this year but on those occasions, there were exemptions so nursing cover was maintained in critical areas. The government has said that the strike action planned for May, with no national exemptions, would put patients at risk.
Union responses to legal action: strikes have “always been safe and legal”
The RCN continues to demonstrate support to its members taking strike action. General Secretary, Pat Cullen, argues that the strike on 2 May falls within the required six-month period from when votes were cast for industrial action and that the nursing profession is “strong and determined”.
If the court finds the strike to be unlawful, the RCN are willing to accept the judgement as it would “never do anything illegal”. However, the RCN has accused ministers of using “draconian anti-union legislation”. Cullen argues that “the only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them – including in court”.
Furthermore, Cullen has accused the Government of treating nurses like criminals and asserts that it is “so wrong for the government to use taxpayers’ money to drag our profession through the courts”.
Pay disputes between the Government and NHS workers such as nurses have been ongoing for months and the Government has on multiple occasions asserted its opposition to strike action. Whether the walkouts on 2 May will go ahead is now in the hands of the court.