Nurses taking effective strike action without endangering patients is a lot easier than you might think!
The starting point is recognising there are normal times when staffing levels and activity are lower than the busiest times. Hospitals routinely expect staff to cover emergencies through the night on minimum staffing levels. On weekends and Bank Holidays activity levels drop to a minimum.
On the adult mental health admission ward where I work, all the Unison members (all but one of the non-medical staff) struck if they were on duty, or showed support by respecting and supporting the picket lines on 13th October and 24th November. This included the ward manager and modern matron! Nursing staff on other wards and in the community struck to leave a Christmas day service. No harm came to any patients in the core services that had to remain open.
Staff didn’t strike lightly, without considering the patients’ care. We knew that with some preparation that our work could be covered by other non-striking nurses re-deployed from other non-essential areas. We also knew we had to cause significant disruption to send a message to the top.
On the ward itself we accepted there would not be the full range of activity - such as ward rounds - but as long as patient safety was maintained then staff were satisfied they could join the strike. Non-essential appointments could be rescheduled for after the strike - many would be cancelled anyway due to ambulance workers being out too.
It helped to know that all NHS trusts have contingency plans to cover emergencies where large numbers of staff fail to come to work - such as epidemics and major transport disruptions due to floods and snow. Unlike these emergencies, which employers are prepared to cope, a strike is a planned event, giving employers time to prepare emergency cover for patients.
If the Trust plans genuinely fail they are instructed to approach the union to identify who can cross the picket line to provide emergency cover. However before this happens the unions would be checking that the Trust is running only an essential service and that all managers, non-union staff and scabs in non-essential areas have been redeployed to cover essential services.
There was reluctance by some managers to arrange cover in an attempt to hold staff hostage to patient care - but where staff made it absolutely clear they would be striking this wasn’t an issue.
Pay is a real issue for nurses. Many healthcare assistants are having to over-work to have any kind of standard of living above the most basic of existences.
The impact low wages has on our ability to attract and retain staff is undermining patient care. We are repeatedly faced with inadequate cover, and often run shifts where we are just covering the essentials. The longer this goes on the worse it is likely to become, as staff burn out from over-work and despair from not delivering a decent service.
Those staff who understand this, also understand we have to strike to make a difference. Just carrying on the same, failing to challenge the cuts, is only helping the Con-Dems wreck the NHS.