Rishi Sunak was urged to end his “hibernation” and meet with nurses last night in a bid to avert their first ever nationwide strike today.
The prime minister was accused of allowing the row to escalate as up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland prepared to walk out.
Ministers have refused to discuss the union’s wage demand of 19.1 per cent, insisting they accept the Government’s pay review body’s offer of 4.5 per cent.
“Nurses on strike are a disgrace to this government,” Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said at Prime Minister’s Questions. “Winter has come for our public services and we have a Prime Minister who has curled up in a ball and gone to sleep.”
But the Prime Minister called the offer “fair” and challenged Sir Keir to condemn a strike that would disrupt healthcare for millions of patients.
“We protect the public, they protect their paymasters,” he said. “For working people in this country, it is Labour’s nightmare before Christmas.”
Health chiefs said patients should expect a “bank holiday” level of service when nurses walk out today and on Tuesday – delaying up to 15,000 operations.
Union boss Pat Cullen said nurses have public support – and will work as usual in chemotherapy, intensive care, kidney dialysis, children’s acute care, children’s intensive care and neonatal services.
But NHS England’s cancer chief, Dame Cally Palmer, warned the union that the plans could disrupt 1,000 cancer patients’ appointments. “Our shared goal is to ensure that we do not cause harm to people undergoing essential cancer treatment to achieve a cure or prolong life,” she wrote.
The union called her letter a “politically motivated smear” and said clinically urgent cancer treatment would continue.
Meanwhile, postal workers began their latest 48-hour strike yesterday as bosses said Christmas cards must be sent by tomorrow to arrive on time.
The Communication Workers Union warned foxes and rats have been free to attack piles of undelivered parcels left outside a Bristol Royal Mail depot.
Members of the RMT rail union will return to work for a single day today ahead of another 48-hour strike and the police union expressed alarm that some of its 140,000 members may have to drive ambulances when paramedics strike next Wednesday.
Further action was announced yesterday by the TSSA rail union, which will walk out on West Midland Trains and GWR on December 28, and by workers on London’s new Elizabeth Line.
Ministers plan to limit emergency workers’ right to strike, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt saying it could apply to nurses. “People in the services that we depend on for our lives should commit to minimum levels,” he told LBC.
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