The largest strike action taken by nurses in the NHS’s history is “a badge of shame”, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Labour leader said Mr Sunak was in “hibernation” instead of working to call off Thursday’s strike.
Sir Keir urged the PM to hold talks with nurses to resolve the pay dispute.
But Mr Sunak said nurses had a “fair” pay deal and his government had engaged with all unions.
Nurses will still provide emergency care, but routine services will be affected by the strikes.
Downing Street has called on the RCN to “listen” to concerns of nursing leaders about the level of care provided during planned strikes.
A meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee took place on Wednesday morning as ministers discussed contingency plans to deal with the fallout from strikes across health, transport and other sectors.
In the final PMQs of the year, Sir Keir said Mr Sunak needed to “open the door and discuss pay” with the nurses’ union to avert the strikes.
“If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?” the Labour leader asked.
Mr Sunak insisted his government had “consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes”, as strikes are planned in various sectors over winter.
The prime minister said he wanted to “put it on record what we’ve done for nurses”, adding that while other public-sector workers got a pay freeze last year, nurses received a 3% rise.
But Sir Keir said nurses going on strike “is a badge of shame for this government”.
“Instead of showing leadership, he is playing games with people’s health and there is a human cost,” he said.
While acknowledging disruption to care, the prime minister said the government was standing by the offers recommended by the independent pay review body.
He claimed the strikes were “Labour’s nightmare before Christmas” because of the party’s links with the unions.
In response, Sir Keir said Mr Sunak was “pretending everything is fine”.
“After 12 years of Tory failure, winter has arrived for our public services, and we’ve got a prime minister who has curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation,” he said.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, followed the Labour leader, calling on the PM to take “the Scottish Government’s lead” on dealing with public-sector strikes.
On Monday, the devolved Scottish government agreed a 7.5% pay deal with two NHS unions – the Unite and Unison unions – which called off their strikes.
In reply, Mr Sunak said the health secretary and other ministers had “engaged fully, not just with the unions but with an independent pay-setting process”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey focused on the “dreadful cancer backlog” and asked the PM to guarantee it would not get worse.
Sir Ed – who lost both of his parents to cancer as a child – said “40% of cancer patients now wait more than two months for treatment”.
Responding, Mr Sunak said “cancer treatment rates in the most recent months for which we have data are now back at pre-pandemic levels”, with plans in place to fast-track testing for the disease.
In other news – Romford GP guilty of s.e.xually assaulting four more women
A former family doctor exploited patients’ fear of cancer to s.e.xually assault them while undergoing unnecessary examinations, the Old Bailey has heard.
Manish Shah has been found guilty of 25 s.e.xual assaults against four women at his GP clinic in Romford, east London. Learn more