HUNDREDS of thousands of health workers staged their first strike over pay in more than 30 years today, saying they have had enough of being treated as “second class citizens”.
Midwives, nurses, paramedics, ambulance staff, and hospital porters and cleaners mounted picket lines across England from 7am for four hours, and will take other forms of industrial action for the rest of the week.
Action will be taken later today in Northern Ireland.
Many workers, including midwives, went on strike for the first time in their lives, saying they never expected to have to take industrial action.
The walkout was being held in protest at the Government’s decision not to implement a one per cent pay rise to all NHS staff as recommended by a national review body.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that implementing that pay rise would have led to hospitals having to lay off nurses.
He added: “We’re offering them all a one per cent rise. The majority of NHS staff get an automatic three per cent increment but we can’t afford to give a one per cent rise to people already getting that.”
At picket lines across Yorkshire NHS workers belonging to various unions voiced their anger at this decision.
Sharon Hamilton, an industrial relations officer for Unison in Leeds, was among those on the picket line at St James’s Hospital in the city.
She said staff were angry about some people effectively being denied a one per cent pay rise.
“We have had good numbers of the picket line today from Unison, Unite, GMB and the Royal College of Midwives. Staff do feel strongly about this.
“We haven’t had a real pay rise since 2010 and now we are being told that some people cannot have a pay rise of one per cent.
A noisy protest was held outside St Thomas’ hospital opposite Parliament in Westminster, with most passing cars, buses and lorries tooting in support.
Midwives shouted: “Don’t push midwives - push fair pay.”
Annie Black, who has been a midwife for 12 years, said: “We haven’t had a pay rise for years yet our workload keeps on increasing. It’s time the Government took us seriously. It’s weird being on strike, but we feel that enough is enough.”
The strike was in protest at the Government’s decision not to accept a recommended 1% pay rise for all NHS staff.
Mark Boothroyd, a staff nurse at St Thomas’, said: “We have had a pay freeze for four years, so not accepting a recommended 1% from the pay review body was the last straw.
“There is chronic under staffing and increasing workloads, while the NHS is being privatised. At the same time, MPs are being paid a double digit pay rise because David Cameron says he cannot interfere with what is being recommended. It’s just not fair.”
Ian Evans, a biomedical scientist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, said: “For the last four years we have had a continuing reduction in pay and our earnings.
“This year we were offered 1%, well 40% of us were offered 1%.
“The rest were told, ‘well you already get an increment anyway so you don’t deserve a pay rise at all’.
“We argue and dispute the point that these incremental steps are the movement towards the correct pay, the genuine pay for the job.
“We do not believe people should be demonised or should suffer financially.
“We believe that everybody should be awarded a pay rise that actually mimics the living wage, which we are not getting.”
Christina McAnea, national officer of Unison, said: “This is the first time in 32 years that NHS workers take industrial action over pay, and for many, it will be the first time. Up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of workers are out fighting for fair pay and for the NHS.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, accused the Conservatives of “lying” over their treatment of the NHS.
He told strikers at St Thomas’ Hospital: “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.
“We also have a message for the Labour Party that if they get elected next year they have to invest in the NHS and the staff.”
Unite said a poll it commissioned showed public support for the industrial action as well as backing for a decent pay rise.
Contingency plans were put into place to deal with the strike, with union members responding to emergencies.
But a row broke out after it emerged that military personnel and the police were being deployed by the London Ambulance Service. Unions said they had been kept in the dark about the move, which they described as “provocative”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, who joined a picket line near Euston in London, said: “NHS staff are always reluctant strikers - there hasn’t been a national strike over pay in the health service since 1982 - and they will do everything they can to protect patients in their care. But morale has hit rock-bottom.
“It is no surprise that the NHS is finding it hard to recruit and retain staff as they find themselves squeezed between falling living standards and covering up for NHS cuts.”
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the RCM, said: “At a time when MPs are set for a 10% pay hike, we’re told that midwives don’t deserve even a below-inflation 1% rise. And politicians wonder why the public does not afford them more respect.
“It feels to a great many people, including midwives, that there is one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.”
London Ambulance’s director of operations, Jason Killens, said the service was expecting to be under “significant pressure” during the strike, adding: “While we recognise the right of our staff to take action, we must also do all we can to continue to provide a safe service to Londoners.
“We have plans in place to ensure we reach the most seriously ill and injured patients as quickly as possible and these include additional support from hospital doctors and nurses, private ambulance crews, the police and the military.”
Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary said: “Our NHS members don’t take action often or lightly. For many, it will be the first time they walk out as the last action over pay was 32 years ago.
“But what NHS workers also don’t do is walk out on patients. Safety is paramount and we have been working with employers to ensure urgent patient care is not compromised. Patient safety is paramount and life and limb cover will be provided.”
Rehana Azam, national officer of the GMB union, said: “Reports from across the country are that the strike action was rock solid. Members are determined to get Government to listen to them.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We absolutely will talk to the unions, we’ve been prepared to talk to them throughout this. We will talk to them if they’re prepared to look to reform the system of increments, which is unclear and unfair.
“I recognise frontline staff do a magnificent job in the NHS. We have had more than 650 NHS volunteers who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help tackle the Ebola crisis in West Africa.”
He added: “We’re coming through a very difficult period with the tragedy of Mid-Staffordshire. We now have got 5,000 more nurses in just a year. We’re recruiting nurses like crazy at the moment and to put that in reverse would not be the right move at the moment.
“The most important thing here is doing the right thing for patients. It would be irresponsible for any health secretary to accept a pay package that means the NHS has to lay off nurses.”
Mr Hunt said that hospitals would be forced to lay off staff if the recommended pay award was met in full.
“Nearly 60 per cent of NHS staff get an automatic pay rise through their increments of an average of three per cent. We can’t afford to offer a one per cent on top of the three per cent,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“We have had very clear analysis that if we did that, hospital chief executives would lay off around 4,000 nurses this year and around 10,000 nurses next year.
“The NHS has just come through a terrible tragedy with Mid Staffs when we discovered the most appalling care happening there and indeed some other hospitals as well.
“We have turned the corner on that by recruiting in hospital wards around 5,000 extra nurses in the last year alone. We don’t want to turn the clock back on that.”
Outside the busy maternity unit at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, around 40 midwives were on the picket line and cheered every time a driver tooted their horn in support.
Becky Banks, 41, who has been a midwife for 18 years, said the public’s support for their strike action had been “overwhelming”.
She said: “It is incredibly unusual to be on strike.
“Strike action is something we are undertaking with a heavy heart because we do not want to jeopardise any care for women and their babies.
“We need to show Jeremy Hunt how angry we are. He has backed us into a corner and left us with no other option.
“It’s absolutely not a life-changing amount of money but it was recommended by the Independent Pay Review Body that we were awarded this 1%.
“We are wanting what we deserve, we work very long hours. It is a marvellous job and it is an honour to do the job, but we do deserve recognition for that, we still have bills to pay.
“Public support has been overwhelming. We are absolutely buzzing from the support we have had.
“Anybody who comes into contact with midwives knows what an amazing job we do and we work very hard to care for the women we look after, so public support is right behind us.”
Colleague Kate Robison, who joined the NHS in 1972 has only been on strike once before.
The 60-year-old midwife said: “Jeremy Hunt needs to come on the shop floor and work with some of the midwives and see what we do.
“Come and work a 13 hour shift without a break, and do overtime that is not paid, because that is the reality for many midwives working within the NHS today.
“Clients do back us because they appreciate what our job is.
“We want it recognised that in real terms, our pay is back where we were in 2006.”