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NHS staff stage biggest strike the health service has seen in 32 years

About 400,000 NHS staff, including paramedics, nurses, midwives, occupational therapists and hospital managers, have walked out this morning as part of the biggest strike the health service has faced in 32 years.

The action is being taken by members of six unions over the government’s refusal to give all workers a recommended 1% pay rise.

Staff are in the midst of a four-hour strike, which started at 7am and will continue to 11am. Hospital outpatient appointments, community clinics and some routine operations are expected to be affected, however unions say members will still provide “life and limb” cover.

The Royal College of Midwives, which is taking action for the first time in its history, has said services for women giving birth will be unaffected. Instead, their members are likely to target antenatal and postnatal care. Cathy Warwick, chief executive of RCM, said: “Our dispute is not with the women for whom midwives care, it is with employers telling midwives they are not worth a 1% pay rise.”

In London and the north west, 130 military personnel have been drafted in to drive ambulances to replace striking drivers. London Ambulance Service has warned that during the strike those who need an ambulance response, but are not in a life-threatening situation, will have to wait longer or may not receive an ambulance at all.

Jane Cummings, England’s chief nursing officer, said: “We would ask the public to help, for example, by only calling an ambulance if it is a life-threatening situation.”

Todays strike will be followed by four days of ‘working-to-rule’, where staff will insist on taking statutory rest and meal breaks and not working unpaid overtime.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said on the BBC News channel this morning that NHS bosses have told him that agreeing to the unions' pay demands would lead to 14,000 frontline staff being cut over two years. "The pay bill for a hospital is about 75% of their total costs. If you impose on them a pay bill they can't afford then they have to lay off staff."

Unions and staff are angry over the government’s decision to institute a below-inflation 1% non-consolidated pay rise, which the 600,000 staff who receive progression pay increases over 1% will not receive. The government ignored the recommendations of the NHS Pay Review Body, which specifically said that a non-consolidated pay award could have an “adverse impact on staff engagement and motivation” and recommended against it. 

On the picket lines strikers have said they feel undervalued and underappreciated. One midwife on strike in Manchester told the BBC that "every labouring mother will have a midwife" but said there is "a lot of anger" in the health service. Staff are not asking for 10% "like Jeremy Hunt's got, just our fair 1%".

Laura, another midwife in Greater Manchester, told the BBC: “I am a midwife of 15 years... How can we ask students to have three A grades at A-level to do arguably one of the hardest and most challenging of degree courses to start on lower pay than most professional careers, have no meal breaks, constantly work over their hours without pay, have little if any career progression and feel regularly at their wits end due to poor staffing levels and excessive workloads? I have never known such low morale.”

Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey, addressing strikers at London's St Thomas' Hospital, said: "By taking action on such a miserable morning you are sending a strong message that decent men and women in the jewel of our civilisation are not prepared to be treated as second-class citizens any more."

On Friday the NHS Confederation cast doubts on the legitimacy of the strike by questioning the turnout on the strike ballots. Rob Webster, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS employers, said: “Only around 4% of more than one million NHS staff voted to take strike action on Monday. We hope many will make the right choice for patients and not participate in any industrial action, which risks more inconvenience to patients and difficulty planning emergency and acute care.”

He went on to urge staff considering participating in the strike to rethink their decision and “not draw patients into the argument between the government and trades unions over pay”.

Webster said that this is one of the toughest times in the history of the NHS. He pointed out that a pay award for all staff would have cost £450m more, which would have been the equivalent of hiring 14,000 newly qualified nurses.

“Hard-pressed staff would have been put under greater pressure or may have had to be reduced,” he said. “Restraining pay was a tough decision for politicians to make and I believe they did it on the basis of improving the quality of care and maintaining continuity of services.

“Ahead of Monday, employers are pulling out all the stops to minimise disruption to patients and unions are co-operating with this planning ahead of the strike to ensure patients remain safe. I know that thousands of patients will already be anxious because important NHS services, such as ambulance cover, will be under additional pressure on the day and during the week of action short of a strike that will follow it. If appointments have to be rescheduled this would cause unnecessary distress and we urge staff to reconsider taking part in the strike.”

Last week NHS radiographers also voted to strike over pay, however due to the late ballot they will not be taking action until Monday 20 October.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "NHS staff are our greatest asset and we know they are working extremely hard. This is why despite tough financial times, we've protected the NHS budget and now have 13,500 more clinical staff than in 2010. We want to protect these increases and cannot afford incremental pay increases – which disproportionately reward the highest earners – on top of a general pay rise without risking frontline NHS jobs.

"We remain keen to meet with the unions to discuss how we can work together to make the NHS pay system fairer and more affordable.”

On Friday, local government unions cancelled their own strike action planned for this week, but the PCS strike by workers in the wider public sector remains on.

(Top image: c. Andrew Matthews/PA wire. Body image: c. Stefan Rousseau/PA wire)

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