The government is progressing plans to restrict nurses’ ability to strike, following the introduction of controversial legislation to make this possible.
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay has today launched a consultation on implementing minimum service levels in hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales during strikes.
“This legislation – as well as the consultation announced today – doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action”
This would mean that employers could force some hospital nurses, who have legally voted to strike, to work instead, in order to maintain a mandated level of service for patients.
These plans could come into force next year, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The government is proposing that minimum service levels are introduced for “emergency and time-critical hospital-based health services” that deliver “urgent medical treatment”.
The consultation is seeking feedback on these plans, and also asks whether the scope should be expanded to other health services.
In addition, it is seeking views on what the minimum service levels should look like.
The consultation is targeted at the general public as well as health workers and their employers and unions.
Currently, voluntary arrangements between health employers and unions – known as derogations – are often put into place for strike days, which exempts some services from action.
“My top priority is to protect patients and these regulations would provide a safety net”
For example, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN)’s strikes at the end of 2022 included derogations for mental health, learning disability and autism services, as well as emergency cancer services.
Some of these derogations were, however, dropped in later strikes as a form of escalation.
The DHSC alleges that voluntary agreements to ensure a minimum staff level during strikes were “not always honoured or communicated in sufficient time”.
Mr Barclay, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, said that his department no longer felt that these voluntary agreements were “proportional and reasonable”.
He claimed that, in August, there were 17 instances where minimum staffing agreements between local NHS leaders and junior doctors striking via the British Medical Association (BMA) were vetoed by the central union in favour of a more “radical” approach. However, the BMA has since rejected these claims as “categorically untrue”.
Responding to the consultation, NHS Providers chief executive Saffron Cordery warned Mr Barclay that he risked “worsening industrial relations” at a time when there was a need for strikes to be averted.
As well as the ongoing national junior doctor and consultant strikes, nursing staff in Northern Ireland and some parts of England are engaging in localised industrial disputes over pay.
The new consultation comes after the bill enabling it – the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act – was given royal assent earlier this year, and a similar consultation being launched on introducing minimum service levels in ambulance services.
Ms Cordery said: “This legislation – as well as the consultation announced today – doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action, including dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions.
“With unprecedented joint action by consultants and junior doctors just days away, we need government and unions to sit down and talk urgently.”
The Strikes Act was, itself, heavily criticised by unions for restricting workers’ right to strike and introducing the risk of nurses being sacked for taking industrial action.
Announcing the consultation, Mr Barclay added: “This week’s coordinated and calculated strike action [by doctors] will create further disruption and misery for patients and NHS colleagues.
“My top priority is to protect patients and these regulations would provide a safety net for trusts and an assurance to the public that vital health services will be there when they need them.”
Nursing Times has approached nursing unions for comment.
More on the ‘anti-strike’ legislation