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Up to 100,000 nurses will strike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland tomorrow in the first of two days of planned industrial action to protest against poor pay and working conditions.

It is the first time in its 106-year history that the Royal College of Nursing, UK (RCN) has gone on strike in England.

Industrial action will take place on 15 and 20 December following failed negotiations between the RCN and the UK government on a pay deal for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Plans for strike action in Scotland have been averted with RCN members in Scotland to vote on a revised pay offer in a ballot which closes on Monday.

RCN General Secretary and Chief Executive Pat Cullen said UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay effectively “closed the door” on attempts to stop the strikes by refusing to discuss pay in a meeting ahead of the planned strikes tomorrow.

Ms Cullen said she had to speak at length to the Minister about the unprecedented strength of feeling in the profession.

“Nursing is standing up for the profession and their patients. We’ve had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”

“Ministers still have the power and the means to stop this by opening negotiations that address our dispute.”

The union has repeated calls on the UK government to accept its request for negotiations to resolve the dispute over pay and patient safety.

In the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register. Poor pay contributes to staff shortages across the UK, affecting patient safety. There are 47,000 unfilled registered nurse posts in England’s NHS alone.

Despite this year’s pay award, experienced nurses are worse off by 20% in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.

The Fair Pay for Nursing campaign is calling for a pay rise of 5% above inflation.

“We’re campaigning for a pay rise to overcome real-term pay cuts which have left experienced nurses 20% worse off since 2010. Only by paying nursing staff fairly will we recruit and retain the skilled professionals we need,” Ms Cullen said.

In October, the RCN revealed new analysis by London Economics which showed pay for nurses had declined at twice the rate of the private sector in the last decade. Nurses’ real terms earnings have fallen by 6% compared to 3.2% for private sector employees.

Earlier this year, the RCN rejected an offer by the government to increase nurses’ pay by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year. The offer amounted to an average rise of 4.3%, well below the rate of inflation which hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October.

While in many other countries across Europe nursing earnings have kept up with inflation over the last decade, the UK has fallen far behind. Data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), found that in many countries across Europe nurses’ pay has increased in real terms since 2010, but fallen in the UK.

The UK ranks lowly against countries that are comparable in terms of population and size of the economy – like Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Relative to the cost of living across different countries, UK nurses receive lower wages in terms of what their wages can buy or their Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

The RCN says the economic argument for paying nursing staff fairly is clear when billions of pounds is being spent on agency staff to plug workforce gaps.

Also, independent research commissioned by the RCN has shown the Exchequer would recoup 81% of the initial outlay of a significant pay rise in terms of higher tax receipts and savings on future recruitment and retention costs.

Strike action

Members of the union will take action at half of the locations in England where the legal mandate for strikes was secured in November. The number of NHS employers affected by action will increase in January unless negotiations are held.

There will be strike action at every NHS employer in Wales except one and throughout Northern Ireland.

Chemotherapy, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal, paediatric intensive care and paediatric A&E are the services will be exempt from strike action.

The RCN has indicated the industrial action could be the beginning of a longer period of action if formal pay negotiations don’t or occur or result in a satisfactory outcome.

For more information, visit the Strike Hub.