'This is now a fight to save the NHS itself'

NHS strike threat grows as Unite members call for more health service funding and increased pay that reflects cost of living

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Unite members are fighting to save the NHS as they call for more funding for a health service on its knees and better pay for staff who are struggling to make ends meet.

On Monday (November 14) Unite members in health will gather for a demonstration to send a loud and clear message to prime minister Rishi Sunak that next week’s budget is the last chance he has to prevent a winter crisis and avert widespread strikes.

Unite members are warning that without serious, urgent investment in the service and a fair pay rise, 2023 will see a wave of strike action as workers act to protect patients and the very future of the NHS.

Ahead of the protest, which will take place at St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster Bridge Road, from 8am on Monday, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “This is now a fight to save the NHS itself.  Rishi Sunak has to get serious about the crisis engulfing the NHS.  Make no mistake patients’ lives are at risk.

“His coming Budget must deliver on pay and funding – no weasel words or sleight of hand,” she added. “Serious money is needed because this is the very last chance for this government to prevent a devastating winter crisis across our NHS.”

The NHS funding crisis was brought into sharp relief this week when new figures showed that an astonishing 7.1m people in England are waiting to start routine hospital treatment. This is up from 7m in August and the highest figure since records began in 2007.

Commenting, Sharon Graham noted, “The Tory Government appears hell bent on destroying the NHS but the unions are fighting back. Services are at breaking point while workers are struggling to make ends meet.”

Graham spoke of the “daily horror stories from ambulance workers who are currently voting on strike action”.

“18 hour shifts, ambulance workers stuck in queues outside hospitals unable to respond to emergencies,” she said. “Workers report how a lack of hospital beds mean that doctors are even being forced to treat patients on ambulance stretchers.  Meanwhile, workers can’t afford the basics and many are leaving the service.”

Unite’s ambulance members have also encountered threats and abuse from patients frustrated at the chronic deterioration in the service.

Ambulance members aren’t the only ones – Unite members across the health service are in despair as a government funding crisis destroys vital services and leaves NHS workers thousands of pounds a year down on pay.

Members in various parts of the NHS are gearing up to make their voices heard in their fight to save the NHS by taking part in various strike ballots. Unite ambulance service members in Scotland and England have already begun balloting, while notices for formal industrial action proceedings will be served across a host of NHS employers covering NHS services.

These include nursing, healthcare science, applied psychology, counselling and psychotherapy, dental professions, audiology, optometry, building trades, estates, craft and maintenance, administration, ICT, support services and ambulance services. In Wales, Unite’s ambulance members are also set to be balloted.

A vote for strike action will see walk outs in the new year.

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said that potential NHS strikes are “widening” because “our members have had enough”.

“They are watching the NHS that they have given their lives to fall apart in front of their eyes because of 12 years of Tory cuts,” he noted. “And the truth is that they cannot afford to do the job anymore, yet this government wants to cut their pay further.

“The government is destroying our most precious asset.  If our members walk out on strike, it will be the toughest thing they ever do but they have to protect our NHS.”

NHS workers aren’t alone in feeling justified for demanding a well-deserved pay rise. New polling published this week shows that an overwhelming majority of the public supports significantly improved pay for health service staff.

The Unite poll of over 6,000 adults, conducted by leading pollsters Survation, reveals that 7 in 10 people (73%) support NHS and care workers receiving pay rises that keep up with increases in the cost of living.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham noted that the poll shows that the paltry pay rise offered to NHS workers effective April 1, 2022 – which amounts to little more than £27 a week after tax – is in direct contradiction to the will of the people.

“Once again this government is way out of step with public opinion,” she said. “There is overwhelming support for NHS workers who are about to embark on a major battle for fair pay in the middle of a cost of living catastrophe.

“NHS workers made huge sacrifices during the pandemic — the public haven’t forgotten but Tory ministers conveniently have. The blame for the funding crisis which is destroying services and leaving workers struggling to make ends meet lies squarely with the government.”

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe added, “It is enormously heartening that the public support the demands of NHS workers for a decent pay rise that meets the rising cost of living. The strike ballots across the NHS are growing and growing because our members don’t just desire a decent pay rise, but want to protect our NHS and deliver better services for patients.”

Stay tuned on UniteLive for coverage of Monday’s demonstration and the union’s NHS strike ballots.

By Hajera Blagg