Up to 500,000 health workers in England are set to strike on two days in January and February, following two four hour strikes last year.
Health workers will walk out for 12 hours at 9am on Thursday 29 January and for 24 hours on Wednesday 25 February.
The Unison, Unite and GMB unions and the Royal College of Midwives are set to join the action.
The Society of Radiographers has announced its members across Britain will strike for six hours in January, with a possible further walkout the following month.
GMB union members in the ambulance service are also considering a 48-hour strike, which would begin at noon on 29 January.
This marks a serious escalation in the dispute over NHS pay. NHS workers are furious with Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to give most even the 1 percent rise recommended by the pay review body—itself a cut in real terms.
But the strikes are about more than just pay. They are about defending the NHS.
The winter months have highlighted the acute crisis in the NHS, with a number of hospitals declaring “major incidents” or “black alerts”.
Hospitals declare major incidents when they are close to or have reached bed capacity.
This means seriously ill patients can be left to wait on stretchers in corridors and operating theatres, or turned away to hospitals miles away.
Royal College of Nursing head Peter Carter said the NHS was left at “full capacity”. He said, “too many emergency care departments are buckling under the strain”.
New figures revealed last week that the Welsh Ambulance Service had its worst results for emergency response times since 2011.
Ambulances arrived on the scene within the eight minute target for just 51 percent of “Category A” calls in November, down from 63.2 percent the previous year.
This covers people with immediately life-threatening emergencies, such as heart attacks, major bleeding and stopped breathing.
They had to wait an average of ten minutes 43 seconds—more than a third over the target in which they are thought to have the most chance of being saved.
NHS Wales head of operations Gordon Roberts apologised for the shocking figures. But in response he urged people to be careful not to call 999 unless it’s a real emergency in order to conserve NHS resources.
A&E and ambulance hold-ups are a symptom of a bigger crisis facing the health service. The NHS is £8 billion short of the money it needs to keep running.
Bosses such as NHS England chief Simon Stevens now accept the scale of crisis.
But the five year “Forward View” plan he has proposed would only deepen the privatisation that helped cause the problem.
Hunt demands the NHS “save” a further £10 billion a year, partly by cutting its large agency staff bill.
But continuously mounting workloads and poverty pay are already pushing workers out of the NHS.
Health Education England’s (HEE) new Workforce Plan for England reveals how bosses plan to deal with the staffing crisis.
The report calls for a “rapid expansion of physician associates”, who undergo two years of training to perform a range of jobs.
This is an attempt to get around the staff shortage on the cheap “in response to the desire for a more flexible and generic workforce”. It could hit patient care hard.
What the NHS actually needs is an injection of cash and an end to privatisation.
There is a growing mood to fight for the NHS.
Stevens himself said the next government will risk a “public backlash” unless it delivers sustained annual funding increases.
Last autumn’s walkouts reflected this. It showed that workers will fight when unions give a lead.
All activists should hold solidarity collections, pass motions in their union branches and go in person to support their local NHS picket lines.
Don't wait for Labour - take action now
The battle lines are being drawn ahead of May’s general election—and the Labour leadership has made the NHS one of its main campaign priorities.
Ed Miliband kickstarted the year by launching a “Save the NHS” campaign.
This partly reflects that the NHS remains the top priority for most people in the general election.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has pledged that the party would repeal the Tories’ hated Health and Social Care Act.
This is welcome, but falls far short of what’s actually needed.
There would still be privatisation and outsourcing in the NHS.
Labour accused the Tories of having “no plan to give the NHS the cash it needs”.
This is true. But the Labour leadership remains committed to Tory spending cuts—and that includes plans for more NHS cuts.
If Labour really wants to save the NHS a good first step would be to pledge a reversal of Tory cuts and fully back the proposed strikes.
We can’t simply rely on a Labour government to “save” the NHS from the Tories.
Union leaders hope to use the health strikes to help Labour—and shape its agenda—ahead of the election.
But the strikes also showed the real way to beat austerity.