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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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Update: Health unions plan first ever NHS-wide strike

on_strike_sign

Health service unions are planning to launch a series of targeted, rolling strikes this autumn rather than a mass walkout if pension negotiations with the coalition government fail as expected.

The news came to light after Unison, which represents 460,000 NHS workers, hosted a meeting with other unions in London on Wednesday, in order to plan their first ever NHS-wide strike. The meeting was attended by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Dental Association, Unite and the GMB.

According to the Guardian, the unions agreed to form a new campaigning group to come up with possible plans for NHS-wide industrial action, which could comprise "smart" strike action. The idea is that, while much of the health service would be disrupted with activities such as elective surgery and non-crucial appointments being cancelled, minimum levels of service and patient safety would be guaranteed.

The tactics are intended to ensure that the coalition government suffers maximum discomfort without taking the risk of jeopardising public sympathy. Many unions now agree that the public will not tolerate 1980s-style action and, therefore, are looking for more sophisticated ways of dealing with the issue.

If current talks with the government are unsuccessful, the first walk-outs are expected to take place by Christmas.
One official had previously said that the prospect of failure felt “almost inevitable”, claiming that ministers had refused to budge on the fundamental issues of increasing members’ contributions and delaying the retirement age.
 
Commitment to negotiations
 

But the joint group said in statement: "The unions remain committed to pension negotiations and expect the government to reciprocate and not set out unrealistic timetables or ultimatums. One of the clear aims of the campaign group is to ensure that patient safety remains paramount."

It would also look into all issues relating to pensions negotiations, including the possibility of industrial action in the event that the talks fail to make progress, it added.

Christina McAnea, Unison’s national secretary for health, had said before the meeting: “There has never been full-scale industrial action in the health service. This is the first time all the groups have come together to talk about it. Industrial action in the NHS could be massive.”

The aim was to have things in place early to ensure “we can cover everything and ensure we minimise problems for patients”. But she added: “It almost feels this is inevitable.”
 
A Department of Health spokeswoman retorted that, even after proposed changes to NHS pension arrangements, the scheme would still remain one of the best on offer, however.
 
“The status quo is not sustainable with people living much longer, substantially increasing the cost to the taxpayer. Constructive talks on pensions are still on-going. It would be very wrong to make assumptions about their outcome,” she said.
 
While the first week in November is being mooted for industrial action by some civil service and teaching unions, it is unlikely that coordinated action would take place at the same time. No health unions have so far balloted their members for action and, unless government negotiations collapse ahead of their end of October deadline, they appear unlikely to do so.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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