Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has said that potential strikes by healthcare staff would “certainly not” be “in the best interest of patients, and it’s not in the interest of the NHS”.
Unison, the biggest union containing healthcare staff, is balloting its 350,000 members on industrial action. Its members include nurses, paramedics, porters and cleaners.
The NHS “is going through the biggest crisis in its history, and we’ve got a backlog and waiting times which are utterly appalling,” Streeting told the New Statesman‘s Future of Healthcare conference in London this morning. “I can’t see industrial action making that problem easier to solve.”
Unison, which is balloting members in 250 hospitals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is calling for an above-inflation pay increase. In July, following a review, NHS staff in England and Wales were given an average 4.75 per cent increase in pay, with more given to the lowest paid. Unison balloted its Scottish members this month but suspended action when NHS bosses raised their initial offer of a 5 per cent rise to a £2,200 flat rate increase.
Streeting said that he believed, having spoken to healthcare workers, that the main cause for the potential strikes was that “staff feel [that] their backs against the wall and they no longer have any choice”, with the cost-of-living “looming large”. Healthcare leaders “have been warning ministers for years and years and years about the state of the NHS,” Streeting added, noting long-running staff concerns about the quality of care they can give due to shortages of resources and personnel.
Nurses have reported feelings of “moral injury and anxiety” to Streeting. “What they say is, ‘I’ve got to go on strike, because something’s got to change and no one is listening’,” he said.
Despite the Labour Party’s neutral position on industrial action taken in various industries this year, Streeting said he sympathised with staff wanting to strike. “I’m not going to condemn NHS staff for voting to go on strike,” he said. “What I want to do is make sure we’ve got a Labour government to deal with the core problems they’re identifying and making sure that we don’t see this happening [again].”
Streeting mocked the fragility of Rishi Sunak’s new government. Checking his phone at the beginning of his interview at the conference, Streeting quipped: “I wasn’t being rude. I wanted to see whether Suella Braverman had been sacked.” He also joked about Steve Barclay, the new Health Secretary, who had briefly held the position under Boris Johnson. “If there’s one thing to say about the new health secretary, it’s that he’s definitely the worst health secretary we’ve had since Steve Barclay.”
Streeting acknowledged that Sunak would be a more difficult opponent for Labour than Liz Truss proved to be, but described the Prime Minister as operating “a party management exercise” and putting together a “quick-fix” government. “My party’s had its own share of trauma,” Streeting added. “At least when we were going mad, we were in opposition, not really able to do any harm. These people are in government, and they are doing active harm.”
A Labour government’s priorities, Streeting said, would be a ten-year workforce plan in which more people would join the health service than ever before, along with a pledge to change the negative “culture” that permeate the NHS and exploring how science and technology could “radically reimagine” healthcare to focus on prevention and early intervention. “It’s my responsibility and Labour’s responsibility,” he said, “to inspire the public with the hope and belief and confidence in a better plan that makes the NHS and social care fit for the future.”