A nurses strike will not put patients in any more danger than they are in already, a union chief has said, despite claims that thousands of NHS operations could be cancelled if there is a walkout.
Around 300,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) are being asked on Thursday if they want to mount a campaign of industrial action in the union’s first UK-wide ballot.
The union is encouraging members to vote in favour of strike action and general secretary Pat Cullen said that nurses will still provide critical care if the strike goes ahead.
She said: "Nurses will do nothing to add to the risk that patients are facing every single day as a consequence of not having those nurses in the system to look after them.
"I had a privilege to lead the first nurses' strike in Northern Ireland for 103 years. That was done very safely, very effectively and totally professionally, and that put no patient at further risk.
"We had very clear protocols about organising it. There is no thing in our profession where we down tools and walk off wards or leave our patients in the community.
"We continue to provide critical services throughout any strike." She added that they would be potentially taking action to "save the health service".
It is the first time in its 106-year history that the RCN has balloted members across the UK on strike action and it is urging them to vote in favour. The ballot lasts for four weeks and closes on Nov 2.
Any action taken by RCN will follow the “life-preserving care model”, meaning accident and emergency and intensive care nurses would be exempt from taking part.
Community nurses who provide life-saving medication would also be exempt from strike action.
Elective procedures could be delayed or cancelled
But The Telegraph understands theatre nurses assisting during scheduled surgeries would not be exempt under this model, meaning elective procedures could be delayed or cancelled if strike action goes ahead.
It is understood the level of treatment delivered by the nurses would be based on patient need and risk to life, rather than system convenience.
Around 6.8 million patients are currently waiting to start treatment on the NHS, the highest on record, while 15 million patients undergo elective treatment a year in England.
Health sources said plans will be in place to cover any striking staff to ensure patients still get the care they need.
The RCN said new analysis by London Economics to coincide with the ballot launch showed that pay for nurses has declined at twice the rate of the private sector in the last decade.
Nurses’ real-terms earnings have fallen by 6 per cent compared with 3.2 per cent for private sector employees, it was found.
Earlier this year, the Government gave most NHS workers a £1,400 pay rise, far below what unions had been calling for.
Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said in a message to those being balloted: “This is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve your pay and combat the staff shortages that put patients at risk.
“Governments have repeatedly neglected the NHS and the value of nursing. We can change this if together we say ‘enough is enough’.”