Thousands of nurses have demonstrated their anger at pensions cuts by going on strike and joining marches and rallies across the UK.
Amid a “war of words” between ministers and unions over the actual numbers of public sector workers that took part, Nursing Times has collated regional figures provided by strategic health authorities.
They show the impact of the industrial action varied across England, with a fifth of staff in the North West absent from work, compared with just 8% in the East of England.
In Yorkshire, 14% of staff stayed off work, while 13% in the North East and East Midlands went on strike, and 11% in the West Midlands and 9% in London and the South.
Nationally, unions said 400,000 NHS workers went on strike alongside 1.6m other public sector workers last Wednesday, though the government has claimed only around 79,000 NHS staff took part. It is unclear at present whether the government will publish an official figure at a later date.
The first national NHS strike since 1988 was sparked by government plans to raise the retirement age, scrap final salary pensions and increase employee contributions. Unions were spurred on by a speech from Chancellor George Osborne on the eve of the planned day of action in which he announced public sector pay would be capped at 1% a year for two years from April 2013.
On the same day, a report by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility predicted there would be 710,000 public sector job losses by 2017 – 310,000 more than it predicted in March.
The Department of Health had predicted that up to 20% of staff would stay away from work, meaning 5,600 operations and 12,000 diagnostic tests would need to be cancelled. It said around 5% of staff would normally be absent on a typical day due to sickness. It is also likely some staff were forced to stay at home due to schools being shut.
However, after the event it estimated that around 14.5% of staff from trusts, ambulance services and NHS Direct were absent from work. Using the DH’s earlier calculations, this suggests 4,060 operations and 8,700 diagnostic tests were cancelled.
Unison head of health Christina McAnea responded to claims by prime minister David Cameron that the strike had been a “damp squib”, saying many union members turned up to work due to prior agreements that they would provide emergency cover on the day.
She said: “This action was solid. Thousands of people were demonstrating in every major town and city across the UK. It is time the government started listening to them.”
Unions that balloted for action included Unison, Unite and the GMB. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey called the day “a brilliant display of courage and concern by public servants who are being demonised by a government that has lost its moral compass”.
The Royal College of Nursing did not ballot, but members held lunchtime rallies and joined marches held in cities including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bath. The RCN council will meet in January to discuss whether to ballot for industrial action.
Pension talks are continuing and the government has given unions until Christmas to sign a deal.
Sources involved in the discussions believe ministers may be willing to extend the protection from the changes they have offered those within 10 years of retirement to cover those currently in their late 40s.
This would mean the average nurse, aged between 45 and 59, would not have to pay more towards their pension, but they would still have to work into their late 60s.