The most precious jewel for the British since the end of World War II set up a modern welfare state, the National Health Service (NHS), has become the battlefield where they play the survival of the conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
The nurses attached to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN, in its original acronym), which represent around 300,000 people, have supported two days of strike starting this Monday, demanding a salary increase. Along with them, nearly 13,000 ambulance service workers have staged a new strike. Despite the fact that the emergency and intensive care services, together with the chemotherapy or dialysis plants, have functioned relatively normally, the NHS authorities estimate that nearly 50,000 appointments were going to be canceled throughout the day.
Sunak’s government, whose priority since taking over the reins of the country has been to curb inflation that today stands at 9.2% and a cost-of-living crisis that affects the vast majority of Britons, has decided to put foot on the wall. He refuses to negotiate any salary increase for health personnel for this year, arguing that this chapter is already closed. In return, he suggests the unions end the strikes and focus on their strategy for next year’s bargaining.
“It is clear that the unions’ decision to call strikes will mean further disruption to service in the NHS, and will not help our effort to end waiting lists and backlogs. It is very unfortunate,” said a Downing Street spokesman on Monday, who has asked the workers’ representatives to “think about how to move forward together, and focus on this year’s salary review [en referencia al presupuesto 2023-2024]”, he pointed out.
Early in the morning, dozens of nurses from London’s St. Thomas Hospital gathered again with banners at the gates of the center, and received the support of many of the vehicles that passed by and honked their horns. Unlike other public sectors that have decided to go on strike, health personnel continue to have broad support from the public (more than 60% of those consulted in the latest survey published by the daily The Times).
It is true that few citizens directly support the 19% increase demanded by the unions. They argue that wages have been stagnant for more than a decade, and that the UK’s real CPI is close to 14%, to which they add 5% in their petition. The Government hides behind the recommendations already made by the Salary Review Body (a theoretically independent committee attached to each public sector that presents its analysis and suggestions every year), and refuses to review the approved increase, between 4% and 6% depending on the band, which was accompanied by a single increase of just over 1,500 euros per year.
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dreaded spiral of inflation
But, above all, Sunak fears that any excessive increase in salaries will end up causing the feared spiral of inflation, and the main objective of his mandate is to return to the United Kingdom the economic stability that was ruined during the brief mandate of his predecessor, Liz Truss, not met.
“There is a wide range of public sector workers who have raised the same request [revisar el pacto salarial acordado ya para este año]”, said the Secretary of State for Health, Maria Caulfield, on Monday. “We are talking about billions of pounds. We want to put all that money towards essential services, of course, but we are also accountable to all taxpayers. Taxes are already very high and people are struggling every day to cope with this economic situation,” Caulfield said.
The representatives of the health workers point to the autonomous governments of Wales and Scotland, with competences in health matters, that they have promised to negotiate and have managed, for the moment, to call off the strikes in their respective territories.
“The Government has decided to punish the nurses in England, instead of joining the negotiating table to talk about salaries, as they have done in Wales or Scotland,” said Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN. “Let him make an offer, and I will send it to our associates, (…) but we need to resolve this during this year, because there are hundreds of thousands of nurses who have supported the strike, precisely so that the agreement is modified for the period 2022-2023″, added Cullen.
The Labor opposition —whose leader, Keir Starmer, has tried at all times to play both sides: blame the Government for sitting idle, but avoid any photos next to the pickets— demanded Sunak, in a public act in the town of Bristol, to do something: “Many people are stunned how the Government has decided to do nothing, is incapable of showing leadership and sitting at the negotiating table,” Starmer denounced.
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