It is easy for the public to look at the news right now and be concerned about the NHS (and many other public services). With wages not keeping pace with ever-increasing inflation, it’s no surprise more and more public sector workers are taking to the streets to demonstrate their discontentment and ask for better pay.
Large-scale strike action in the health service by nurses, ambulance drivers, and physiotherapists has resulted in significant disruption with health leaders stating that more than 88,000 appointments have been postponed. This is on top of the growing number of patients on the NHS waiting list which was over 7 million as of December 2022.
There is further action planned that will see the biggest industrial action in history in the health service and tensions remain high between NHS trusts and the government. The BMA advised that if their ballot favors more strikes, there will be a 72-hour walkout in March this year. So, what does this all mean for the NHS in 2023 and beyond?
Why are NHS Workers Striking?
First, it is important to look at why so many NHS workers are striking in 2023. The crux of the issue, which is the same reason for rail workers and other public workers going on strike – is pay and real-term wage losses as a result of record levels of inflation. However, if important to note that these strikes have been on the cards for many years with workers in the health service feeling that the NHS has been massively underfunded and mismanaged in the last decade. Additionally, many feel betrayed by the Government after being hailed as heroes during the pandemic and were roundly applauded for their service but are now villainized as unreasonable and selfish.
The demands from Unions such as the RCN which represents the workers going on strike are as follows: a 19% pay rise, although they are willing to meet halfway (RCN) and Unions representing ambulance workers and physiotherapists want above-inflation pay rises. So far, NHS staff in England & Wales have already received an average increase of 4.75%, and with inflation running at around 10%, workers will effectively lose around 5% of their pay.
The Effects of the NHS Strikes
Obviously, nurses, ambulance drivers, and physiotherapists striking causes enormous and potentially very dangerous disruption for the public. Especially since there are already record numbers of patients on the waiting list. But while industrial action is taking place, there are measures in place to keep the health service running throughout this difficult time. The measures that have been advised so far are that people only call for an ambulance in a life-threatening situation and life-preserving treatment will be provided by nurses during this time. In more than one reported instance, patients have been advised to seek private healthcare in order to jump the queue (sort of speak).
It is thought that the pre-booked treatments will be impacted most, such as outpatient procedures and hip replacements. While key services will remain operational, it is likely that the standard of care will fall. As a result, the risk of medical negligence increases and this could lead to an increase in medical negligence cases; due to healthcare workers having to take on more work and cases thus not being able to offer the capacity needed to look after patients.
Will the waiting list improve this year?
While it’s difficult to fix a public healthcare system that has had a number of difficult years due to the reasons outlined above, the waiting list is undoubtedly the elephant in the room that needs urgent attention.
According to the IFS, it’s unlikely that the waiting list will get better in 2023 as their research looked at data from NHS England and projections they anticipate for the years ahead. What’s more, the government doesn’t look to be in a financial position to be able to negotiate a pay rise to put an end to strike actions. If they could they may unintentionally encourage other public sector workers who haven’t benefited from a pay rise to protest and thus aggravate the situation.
It is hard to predict what will happen in the short and long term with trusts and the government seemingly at an impasse in negotiations. It has led to discussions about a partially private healthcare system, which is a hugely contentious issue in the UK and a major political topic. While there is little progress currently being made, it seems that the public generally supports the strikes and this will harm the government’s position, but it is hard to predict what will happen if the strikes continue. Of course, there are also many other public services striking at this time and coordinated strikes are planned for maximum impact.
The other dilemma facing NHS workers on top of their pay cut due to skyrocketing inflation is the rise in interest rates by the Bank Of England. This necessary increase in borrowing costs to tame inflation will affect all healthcare workers with mortgages or loans that are variable. This may not be a directly related factor but it’s well worth noting as it will no doubt add to the worries and discontentment of the Union members.
Industrial action in the health service is causing significant disruption in the UK right now and it is a major cause for concern with so many relying on the NHS. Disputes over pay have led to industrial action, but the issues run deeper than this and many feel that these strikes have been in the works for many years.