Some staff at NHS hospitals did take part in local strikes when Labour was last in power

15 November 2022
What was claimed

There were no strikes in the NHS when Labour was last in power.

Our verdict

At least two formal local strikes, and one unofficial local strike, took place in that period involving staff working at NHS hospitals, though some weren’t directly employed by the NHS. We couldn’t find any instances of nationwide strike action in the NHS during this period.

“There were no strikes in the NHS during 13 years when Labour was last in government.”

Following confirmation that nurses working at many NHS trusts had voted in favour of strike action as part of a dispute over pay and conditions, Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting tweeted that there had been “no strikes in the NHS during 13 years when Labour was last in government”.

These comments were also reported by a number of media outlets.

However, Full Fact has been able to find two examples of formal local strike action by staff working in NHS hospitals during this period (between 1997 and 2010), as well as one unofficial strike involving hundreds of staff. While some of the staff involved were employed by an agency to work in an NHS hospital, others appear to have been directly employed by the NHS.

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What local strikes took place at NHS hospitals?

On 31 October 2005, the BBC reported that staff working at four NHS hospitals in Newcastle held a one-day strike over the new Agenda for Change contracts, which were introduced in 2004, and which the trade union Unison said were allowing existing staff to be employed on lower wages than new recruits.

This strike reportedly involved around 600 catering staff, cleaners and porters, and while we’ve not been able to find full details of the dispute, reports from the time now available on local paper The Chronicle’s website and on the Workers Revolutionary Party’s website suggest those striking were directly employed by the NHS.

In August 2002, the BBC reported that staff working at Glasgow Royal Infirmary held a 48-hour strike over pay and working conditions. This dispute reportedly involved around 300 domestic and cleaning staff who were employed by the agency Sodexho (now Sodexo), and worked in the NHS hospital. Trade publication The Caterer reported that the dispute was resolved later that month following a deal with Sodexho.

We also found a report in The Times of an “unofficial strike” (that is, a strike which is not organised or officially endorsed by a union) involving around 500 clerical and administrative staff at at least five Glasgow hospitals in November 2002. The dispute reportedly resulted in severe disruption to “admissions, theatre schedules, clinic IT and the delivery of case notes”.

While again we’ve not been able to verify all the details of this action, according to a Socialist Worker report from the time these staff were directly employed by the NHS.

Health is a devolved issue, meaning NHS funding in Glasgow is a matter for the Scottish government, which during this period was controlled by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

The Socialist Worker report also mentions a second strike involving Sodexho workers at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in 2002, though we’ve been unable to confirm that this took place or find further details.

Full Fact has put these examples to Mr Streeting, and asked whether he agrees that they appear to contradict his claim that there were “no strikes in the NHS” when Labour was last in power.

We have contacted leading trade unions Unison, GMB and Unite to ask whether they hold any records of strike action involving NHS staff, or other staff working in NHS hospitals, between 1997 and 2010.

Unite told us it doesn’t hold records going that far back. We’ll update this fact check with any further responses we receive.

We could not find any examples of nationwide disputes involving NHS staff or staff working in NHS hospitals when Labour was last in power, nor any examples of strike action involving clinical staff, as the proposed nurses strike would be.

Mr Streeting’s tweet was shared on Twitter by at least six other Labour MPs, and the Labour Whips’ Office.

Image courtesy of David Woolfall

Update 18 November 2022

We’ve updated this piece to explain that NHS funding in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish government.

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After we published this fact check, we contacted Wes Streeting to request a correction regarding this claim.

Mr Streeting did not respond.

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