Nurses are being “treated as criminals” for going on strike, a union leader has claimed.
Pat Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), described health secretary Steve Barclay’s decision to “pursue legal action” over the union’s upcoming strike as “cruel” and “unacceptable”.
Members of the (RCN) working for the NHS in England are preparing to take industrial action for 48 hours over the May bank holiday.
They are set to walk out from 8pm, or the start of a night shift on 30 April, until 8pm or the start of the night shift on 2 May.
The action will see nurses in emergency departments, intensive care and cancer wards down tools for the first time.
But NHS bosses believe the union’s six-month mandate for industrial action expires during the strike period. The government is set to put this to the test in the courts.
“What they are doing is dragging our nursing staff through a courtroom, and I find this not just cruel but totally unacceptable,” Ms Cullen told BBC Breakfast.
“[They are] treating them as criminals.”
However, she insisted that members would “absolutely work within the parameters of the law” if the courts found against them.
“We will never do anything illegal. Nurses don’t work like that, and I’m a nurse myself,” she told Radio 4’s Today programme.
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“But if nursing is defeated then it is in my mind, and in our nurses’ minds, an even darker day for this government.
“They should really see sense, calm this down and withdraw their position and get in and start negotiating with us.”
Mr Barclay announced on Friday that he would launch the legal action after bosses from NHS Employers wrote to him asking him to check the legality of the strike action.
In a statement, Mr Barclay said: “Following a request from NHS Employers, I have regretfully provided notice of my intent to pursue legal action to ask the courts to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s upcoming strike action planned for 30 April to 2 May to be unlawful.
“The government firmly believes in the right to strike, but it is vital that any industrial action is lawful and I have no choice but to take action.
“Strike action with no national exemptions agreed, including for emergency and cancer care, will also put patient safety at risk.”
Mr Barclay warned nurses that taking part in the action could put their careers in jeopardy.
“This legal action also seeks to protect nurses who could otherwise be asked to take part in unlawful activity that could, in turn, put their professional registration at risk and would breach the requirements set out in the nursing code of conduct,” he said.
The RCN argue the court arguments should only relate to 2 May, rather than the whole strike period.
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Mr Barclay revealed his intent to launch legal action after nurses in England represented by the RCN rejected an offer of a 5% pay rise last week.
The offer was rejected, despite a recommendation by union leaders to accept the deal.
An NHS leader warned that an escalation of action would “endanger patient safety“.