Thousands of British nurses walked off the job Wednesday in a protest over pay, piling new pressure onto the UK’s overburdened public health system.
Two 12-hour nursing strikes affect about one-fourth of the hospitals and clinics in England. Emergency care and cancer treatments will continue, but thousands of other procedures and appointments are likely to be postponed.
The nurses’ strike follows a walkout last week by some 25,000 UK ambulance workers—their second strike since December in their own dispute with the government over pay.
Nurses and ambulance workers are planning even more strikes for February as well, putting pressure on Britain’s Conservative government to lift its opposition to substantial raises for health care staff.
Along with the nurses and ambulance crews, British train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving instructors, bus drivers and postal workers have all walked off their jobs in recent months to demand higher pay amid a cost-of-living crisis.
The nurses’ union is seeking a 5% raise above inflation which hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October in the U.K., driven by sharply rising energy and food costs, before easing slightly to 10.5% in December.
The British nurses’ strikes follow a warning by American nurses of more possible walkouts in this country after thousands of New York City nurses at two private hospital systems staged a three-day work stoppage last week.
While the New York nurses did receive a pay raise, their larger complaint had to do with staffing. Nurses in the U.S. argue that the hospital system can no longer function with the widespread staffing shortages that have arisen due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the health system was dealing with “unprecedented challenges,” but insisted the government was spending extra money to relieve the pressure. However, he did not mention the nurses’ demands for higher pay.
“We are investing more in urgent and emergency care to create more bed capacity, we are ensuring that the flow of patients through emergency care is faster than it ever has been,” Sunak said in the House of Commons.