The Government has issued a “blatant threat” by taking legal action over a planned 48-hour strike by nurses in the long-running dispute over pay, a union leader has said.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members working in the NHS in England at workplaces with a strike mandate are preparing to take industrial action from 8pm or the start of the night shift on April 30 until 8pm or the start of the night shift on May 2.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen hit out at Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay after NHS Employers wrote to him asking to check the legality of the action because the strike mandate runs out in early May.
Mr Barclay said he had “no choice” but to take action, believing the strikes would put patient safety and the professional registration of nurses “at risk”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Cullen said: “We have managed six months of industrial action and we have done that in the most safe and effective way.
“We will certainly not put our members at risk, we certainly won’t put our patients at risk.
“But for Steve Barclay to come out yesterday and say that he was doing this to protect the registration of nurses, well you can see how nurses interpreted that.
“That was a blatant threat to our nursing staff to say, ‘If you don’t stop this and accept my pay offer then your registration perhaps may be at risk’.
“We will never put our nurses at risk and we certainly won’t put their registration at risk.”
Mr Barclay had said: “Following a request from NHS Employers I have regretfully provided notice of my intent to pursue legal action to ask the courts to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s upcoming strike action planned for April 30 to May 2 to be unlawful.
“The Government firmly believes in the right to strike but it is vital that any industrial action is lawful and I have no choice but to take action.
“Strike action with no national exemptions agreed, including for emergency and cancer care, will also put patient safety at risk.
“This legal action also seeks to protect nurses who could otherwise be asked to take part in unlawful activity that could in turn put their professional registration at risk and would breach the requirements set out in the nursing code of conduct.”
Ms Cullen urged ministers to “calm this down” and resume negotiations.
The union chief accused ministers of treating nurses “as criminals” by “dragging them through the courts” despite their efforts on the front line of the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How low can a government stoop?” she asked.
She said the union had been planning with NHS England and other service leaders for the potential industrial action next month, including ensuring there are protocols for escalation to ensure patient safety is not put at risk.
However, she went on: “If the court finds against us, then we will absolutely work within the parameters of the law.
“We will never do anything illegal. Nurses don’t work like that, and I’m a nurse myself.
“But if nursing is defeated then it is, in my mind, and in our nurses’ minds, an even darker day for this Government.”