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Not fancy a grilling, Steve? Health Secretary avoids prime-time interviews on day of biggest ever NHS strike

  • Health Secretary Steve Barclay shirked prime time TV interviews this morning
  • His absence came as the NHS faced one its toughest days so far this winter
  • Around 100,000 nurses walked off the job this morning in a dispute over pay
  • Labour said Mr Barclay was ‘hiding’ from the blame of contributing to the strike
  •  Read more on: The biggest ever NHS strikes as nurses take to picket lines today 

Nurses weren’t the only people shirking some parts of their job today.  

Health Secretary Steve Barclay, once described as ‘the invisible man’ for a lack of action in the run-up to the biggest NHS strike in the country’s history, m pack steroids was absent from prime time interviews this morning.

Instead, junior health minister Maria Caulfield — who trained as an NHS nurse— to face the public this morning as thousands of NHS nurses took to the picket lines.

Labour shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Mr Barclay of ‘hiding’ from the consequences of his inability to resolve the nurses’ strike.   

Have you seen this man? Health Secretary Steve Barclay was notably absent from the TV broadcast round this morning as NHS nurses held their first strike day

‘These are Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay’s strikes,’ he said.

‘They drove nurses to vote to strike, they refused to negotiate, and they declined the nurses’ offer to suspend the strikes today.

‘They can’t hide from the blame, patients will be in no doubt who has caused the disruption to the health service today.’

Mr Barclay has been vocal about the strikes in the past few days. 

Pay dispute between Government and nurses shows no signs of being sorted 

Sources said there had been no contact between the RCN and the Department of Health since talks broke down on Monday. 

Ms Cullen accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of ‘belligerence’ after he refused to discuss the issue of pay.

The Government insists it will not increase its 4 per cent offer – equivalent to a £1,400 pay rise – which was the amount recommended by the independent pay review body.

Mr Barclay said nurses were ‘incredibly dedicated to their job’ and ‘it is deeply regrettable some union members are going ahead with strike action’.

He added: ‘My number one priority is to keep patients safe – I’ve been working across government and with medics outside the public sector to ensure safe staffing levels – but I do remain concerned about the risk that strikes pose to patients.

‘Nevertheless, the NHS is open and patients should continue to seek urgent medical care – and attend appointments – unless they’ve been contacted by the NHS.’

He said paying nurses more ‘would mean taking money away from frontline services at a time when we are tackling record waiting lists as a result of the pandemic.’

The RCN has been calling for a pay rise at 5% above inflation, though it has indicated it would accept a lower offer.

When it submitted the 5% figure to the independent pay review body in March, inflation was running at 7.5%.

But inflation has since soared, with RPI standing at 14.2% in September.

He is expected to visit a hospital in West London later today to make a video statement. 

Mr Barclay’s shirking of tough questions on the airwaves comes as up to 100,000 nurses walked out from their NHS jobs today over pay and conditions.

The action, led by union the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), saw picket lines drawn at 63 NHS hospital trusts in England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. 

It marks the biggest strike action in the health service’s history. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak yesterday warned millions of patients are expected to be affected by the walk-out, with many wards and A&Es only providing a Christmas Day level of service.

Nurses are arguing they need an inflation busting 19 per cent pay hike to keep staff in the NHS after years of salary stagnation and rising cost-of-living. 

Just over one-in-ten nursing posts in the NHS in England are currently vacant, and there are reports of nurses using being forced to use food banks or ditching the profession entirely to work in better paying jobs in supermarkets. 

Despite the strike, health leaders have urged unwell Britons to still seek NHS help, insisting the health service ‘is open’.

However, they have admitted there are concerns ‘about the risk that strikes pose to patients’ from the low level of staffing. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson didn’t comment on the Health Secretary’s absence from the broadcast round this morning, stating he was undertaking a hospital visit today, 

Mr Barclay has repeatedly refused to negotiate pay with the RCN, with 11th-hour talks on Monday to avert the strikes collapsing an attitude the union has described as one of ‘belligerence’.

However, the Health Secretary has continued to insist his door is open to to the RCN but has insisted the Government should abide by independent pay review process. 

Nurses set up pickets at dozens of hospitals in the cold this morning with major trusts taking part include Guy’s and St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust in London, Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, and University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. 

Outside Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool, nurses gathered in freezing temperatures to join the picket line from 7.30am.

Mr Barclay’s dodging of tough questions on his role in letting the strikes happen came as up to 100,000 nurses took to to picket lines this morning. Pictured: Pat Cullen leader of the Royal College of Nursing Union, on the picket line on the first day of strike action at St Thomas’ Hospital in London

This graph shows the Royal College of Nursing’s demands for a 5 per cent above inflation pay rise for the bands covered by its membership which includes healthcare assistants and nurses. Estimates based on NHS Employers data

Many held placards, with slogans including ‘Short staffing costs lives’ and ‘You clapped for us, now act for us’.

One woman held signs saying ‘F*** the Tories’ and ‘If nurses are out here, there’s something wrong in there’.

This is only the first of two days of announced strike action by NHS nurses, who will return to picket lines on December 20.

Union bosses have warned more strike action will be announced in the New Year if Mr Barclay refuses to budge on No10’s offer of a 4 per cent pay rise. 

In other strike news…

‘You clapped for us, now act for us’: Biggest ever NHS strikes begin with up to 100k placard-wielding nurses braving -5C picket lines outside ailing hospitals in row over pay – amid warning of MORE and LONGER action in the New Year 

Mick ‘the Grinch’ Lynch sends his ‘heartfelt solidarity’ to NHS nurses striking tomorrow as hospitals brace for chaos with 100,000 medics preparing to walk-out

Rishi Sunak says MILLIONS will have NHS care disrupted by winter strikes as health bosses beg patients do NOT avoid getting emergency help ahead of tomorrow’s nursing walk-out

Everything you need to know about today’s NHS nurses strikes 

How many staff have walked out?

Up to 100,000 nurses will go on strike today and again on December 20 after their union voted in favour of industrial action.

Walk-outs will occur at around a quarter of NHS trusts and community teams across England, as well as at every trust in Northern Ireland and all but one health board in Wales. 

Initially it was feared that dozens more locations would be affected by strike action, however.

Today’s 12-hour walk-outs, stretching from 8am to 8pm, will cause major disruption to services. 

Who is organising the strike? 

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), described as militant by critics, has organised the strikes.

Some 300,000 members were balloted in the biggest ever vote for strike action in its 106-year existence. 

Rather than one national ballot, mini ballots were held at hospital trusts or community services. 

Pat Cullen, the RCN’s boss, has insisted nurses that nurses are not ‘greedy people’ and just need to ‘make ends meet’.

What does the RCN want?

The union wants a pay increase of 5 per cent above inflation for its members, which the Government has called ‘unaffordable’. 

This would grant the average nurse, who earns roughly £35,600 each year, an extra £6,000 annually, in theory. 

No10 has so far refused to budge on its pay offer, which amounts to approximately 4 per cent, or £1,400 in real terms. 

Despite its demands, the RCN has indicated it would accept a lower offer.

The RCN claims years of low pay for nurses has driven many out of the profession and is putting patient care at risk.

NHS strikes in Scotland were called off earlier this week after two unions accepted an improved pay offer from the Government. 

So why isn’t every nurse striking? 

Strike action was not voted for at every hospital. 

At least 50 per cent of RCN members in each mini ballot needed to vote for results to be legitimate. 

Even if nurses individually voted yes, they cannot legally strike at their own trust if ballots at their hospital went the other way. 

Another reason is that not every nurse is represented by the RCN. Some belong to other unions, which have action planned on different days.

Some nurses who voted to strike are tasked to work during the industrial action to maintain so-called ‘life and limb’ emergency care and to look after those patients already in hospital.

Others have said membership fees are unaffordable for them, despite their desire to strike. 

Who decides nurses’ pay?

The independent pay review body decide nurses’ pay after consulting with unions, ministers and experts.

However, the unions have criticised the independence of the body.

Ex-Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the body that pay recommendations needed to be ‘affordable’ and ‘within budgets set’.

Ms Cullen has accused current Health Secretary Steve Barclay of ‘belligerence’ after he refused to discuss the issue of pay.

Will patients be put at risk? 

NHS chiefs have assured they will do everything they can to keep patients safe.

The RCN has said it will still staff chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal and paediatric intensive care.

Some areas of mental health and learning disability and autism services are also exempt, while trusts have been told they can request staffing for specific clinical needs.

When it comes to adult A&E and urgent care, nurses will work Christmas Day-style rotas.

But there have been concerns from within the NHS over what level of cover trusts can expect for urgent cancer treatment.

Some decisions are likely to be taken on a local level and on a case by case basis. 

Ms Cullen said, however, ‘all urgent cancer treatments will will go ahead’.

Will emergency care be affected? 

Under trade union laws, life-preserving care has to continue during strike action, so staff will be expected to work in intensive and emergency care. 

However, maternity services and A&E patients are expected to see major disruptions as a result of walk-outs. 

Adult A&E and urgent care nurses will work Christmas Day-style rotas. 

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