Why An Enormous Number Of Nurses Are Suddenly Striking

By Jennifer Hollohan | Published

Nurses strike

Frontline workers were thrust into the news spotlight during the pandemic for their long work hours under increasingly stressful conditions. And while that media attention waned as the pandemic restrictions eased, it was not gone for long. Now all eyes are on the looming nurses’ strike in the United Kingdom.

According to CNN, “As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing will walk out across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday in the first of two days of strikes this month to protest poor pay and working conditions.” The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is the largest nursing union in the UK. It represents a large portion of the 360,000 total nurses in the National Health Service.

And the upcoming nurses’ strike is unprecedented. The RCN has been around for 106 years and has never experienced a strike. While a handful of nurses have walked out over the years, it never amounted to a full-blown strike. 

So what happened to prompt one now? The answer is multi-faceted. However, one of the primary drivers is concerns over pay.

Experienced UK nurses average roughly £40,000 ($49,000) annually. That puts them somewhat in the middle of the pay scale compared to similar countries. And while that may not sound too bad, the real story is not quite that simple. 

Nurses who worked between 2010 and 2017 experienced three years of full pay freezes. And the remainder of the years resulted in an average pay decrease of 1.2%. However, even under those harsh conditions, there was still no nurses’ strike.

The UK government worked hard to increase pay in the following years, which was good news. But then the medical system ran headfirst into Covid. Nurses and other medical professionals experienced a tremendous amount of stress. 

And “Nuffield Trust data shows that 40,000 nurses in England, or about 11% of the total nursing workforce, quit their jobs in the year to June.” Even with new hires, England is still running shorthanded. There are a record 47,000 nursing vacancies in the country, which is bad news for those showing up daily.

With so many vacancies, an already stressed workforce is now experiencing significant burnout. Additionally, like everyone else in the country, nurses must navigate raging inflation. As of October, the UK recorded an 11.1% inflation rate.

So, “the RCN rejected an offer by the government to increase nurses’ pay by a minimum of £1,400 ($1,707) a year.” That amounts to a 4.3% bump in pay, which does not come close to touching the inflation rate. Failed negotiations around the pay offer have led to the upcoming nurses’ strike. 

The union has asked the government for 19% pay raises. Additionally, they want all of the nursing vacancies filled. But the government is adamant it just cannot afford that much. 

Unless something drastic happens at the negotiating table before Thursday, the nurses’ strike will happen. So, what does that mean for patients? According to the RNC, enough nurses will remain working during the strike to ensure patients get the care they need.