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UK health workers stage 'biggest NHS strike' in history

February 6, 2023

Nurses and paramedics had been striking separately since last year, but thousands downed tools together in England on Monday, ahead of a week of disruption in Britain's health service.

Healthcare workers take further strike action for fair pay in Westminster on February 6, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Nurses and ambulance workers both walked off their jobs on the same day for the first time in EnglandImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers walked off their jobs in England on Monday, demanding better pay.

Though strikes have persisted in the country for nearly a year, as workers in different sectors call for pay increases to correspond with two-digit inflation figures and a cost-of-living crisis, Monday was the first time nurses and paramedics both walked out on the same day.

The Unite trade union called it the "biggest NHS strike in our history."

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union said planned strikes in Wales were canceled after a new National Health Service pay offer provided by the Welsh government.

Why are the health care workers striking?

Nurses argue that their strike is to preserve the profession, which they say many are abandoning in favor of more lucrative jobs.

"We're already on our knees. It's only going to get worse because more and more people will leave the profession," said trainee nursing associate Victoria Busk, who works on a trauma ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, central England. She added that a single nurse was doing the job of three.

Others argued that the understaffing issue posed a risk to patients.

"Every time you go on a shift, it's dangerous due to low staffing," said Angela Unufe on a picket line outside the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, also in central England.

The nurses strike is scheduled to run for 48 hours. Ambulance staff are expected to strike again on Friday, and physiotherapists Thursday, making the week probably the most disruptive in NHS history, its Medical Director Stephen Powis said.

However, unions say emergency care and cancer treatment will not be disrupted despite the walkout. The ambulance service also vowed to respond to the most urgent calls during their one-day strike.

Ambulances are seen as British NHS Nurses and ambulance staff strike over pay and working conditions outside Leeds General Infirmary hospital in Leeds, United Kingdom on February 06, 2023.
Though ambulance workers said they would still respond to the most urgent calls during the strike, officials described the walkout as dangerousImage: Lindsey Parnaby/AA/picture alliance

British government condemns walkout

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said the paramedic strike could put lives at risk, by creating what he described as a "postcode lottery when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke."

The UK reported inflation of 10.5% in December last year, maintaining a nearly 40-year-all-time-high. While inflation is putting pressure on several public workers, the Conservative government argues that raising salaries with the rate unions are demanding would stand in the way of bringing inflation down.

Throughout the past year, strikes have persisted and expanded among various different public sectors, ranging from teachers to bus and train drivers, airport workers, border staff and postal workers.

Last month, the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposed a controversial bill, dubbed "anti-strike bill" by the media. The bill sets "minimum safety levels" that must be maintained during strikes within certain professions, in a way that complicates the process of walkouts.

rmt/rt (AFP, AP)