The new coalition government can expect a “period of real conflict” if planned cuts are carried out in the NHS, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has warned.
Mr Prentis issued the threat in an interview with Nursing Times on the day health secretary Andrew Lansley said the NHS might need to save more than the current target of £20bn over three years.
Asked how Unison would work with the new administration, Mr Prentis said: “With great difficulty if they keep to the Tory agenda of making cuts to our public services. If that’s to be the case, we’re in for a period of real conflict.”
The NHS has already made substantial efficiency savings over the past three years and the opportunity for more savings has gone, Mr Prentis said. He said a fairer tax system would be a better way to reduce the budget deficit than cutting the NHS.
The coalition government has announced an independent commission to look at public sector pensions – something Mr Prentis said was a “euphemism for saying ‘we’re going to attack the pension schemes’.”
He added: “If they come for our pensions I’ve got no doubts whatsoever that will lead to national action.”
An attack on NHS pensions would be “the final straw” for healthcare workers who were usually reluctant to strike, Mr Prentis said.
“Health workers don’t like taking industrial action, they don’t like leaving patients, it’s not part of their being.
“But on pensions I’ve got no doubt whatsoever that people feel so strongly about it…I think that would be the final straw. I do not rule out a strike for healthcare workers.”
Unison’s hardline approach is in contrast to that of the Royal College of Nursing, which last week welcomed Mr Lansley to his role. RCN director of policy development and implementation Howard Catton said: “Our starting point will absolutely be one of wanting to work with the new government.
But Mr Catton warned: “If we have evidence where [front line services care not] being protected we will be taking that immediately to the new health team.”