Thousands of nurses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are going on strike for the second time this week amid an ongoing pay dispute with the government.
In their biggest walkout in the National Health Service's (NHS) history, nurses began their strike on Dec. 15, when at least 19,000 patients had their surgeries and appointments canceled, according to figures released by NHS trusts in England and Northern Ireland.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the world's largest nursing union and professional body, said it had been given no choice but to strike after the government dismissed their demand for a 19% pay rise as unaffordable.
The RCN urged further strikes, saying that if the UK government failed to respond within 48 hours of their walkout ending, further action would be scheduled for January.
"The prime minister should ask himself what is motivating nursing staff to stand outside their hospitals for a second day so close to Christmas. They're prepared to sacrifice a day's pay to have their concerns heard," said the union's General Secretary Pat Cullen.
Cullen said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was under growing pressure after the first strike and said: "he should listen to people around him."
"Let's get this wrapped up by Christmas. I will negotiate with him at any point to stop nursing staff and patients going into the new year facing such uncertainty," she added.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay, however, maintained the government position, saying: "I hugely value the work of our NHS staff and it is disappointing some union members are going ahead with further strike action when we know the impact this has on patients.
"The RCN's demands are unaffordable during these challenging times and would take money away from frontline services while they are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic."
Strikes in Scotland were cut short after the Scottish government returned to the negotiating table, with some unions accepting an offer to raise pay by an average 7.5% that others, including the RCN, are still evaluating.
About 47,000 unfilled nurse posts in NHS
While the strikes were sparked by a bitter ongoing cost-of-living crisis amid soaring inflation, the nurses' walkout was the result of a clear domino effect after a decade of pay erosion and deterioration in the economy, as well as piling workloads triggered partially by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics, real earnings for nurses have lagged behind employees in other professions in the UK, especially those in the private sector.
"In the private sector, real median earnings fell by 3.2% between 2011 and 2021, while nurses' median earnings diminished by 6%," it said.
As nurses' salaries declined substantially in real terms from 2010-2011 to 2021-2022, their annual rate of departure increased from 8.5% to 10.9%, the research showed. The total number of leavers rose from 27,000 to over 38,000 over that period, marking a 42% rise.
Another striking conclusion was that about 47,000 NHS nurse positions remained vacant as of June 2022, the highest figure on record.