Britain's hospitals will do all they can to “minimise harm to patients” if nurses go on strike, a National Health Service leader has said.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents most NHS organisations, said there were national and regional plans to minimise the effect on patients.
But Mr Taylor admitted that many operations and appointments would have to be cancelled or postponed.
The Royal College of Nurses voted to go on strike over a disagreement on pay and conditions. It is the first time the organisation has taken such action in more than 100 years.
The union is demanding a significant pay increase of 5 per cent above the current rate of inflation.
The NHS is already struggling with record waiting lists as it braces for more pressure before the winter season.
The strike is expected to add to the problems with thousands of operations expected to be cancelled.
Official figures from September show that more than seven million people are in the queue for routine hospital treatment, such as hip and knee operations.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay will on Thursday hold talks with Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN union behind the strikes, as he works to avert the industrial action.
Mr Barclay said he was willing to discuss how working conditions could be improved but was “not negotiating” on pay.
Mr Taylor said industrial action would be “a challenge” for the health service and NHS leaders.
He said the RCN has promised to maintain emergency and critical care “but there will be an impact if there is industrial action in terms of cancelled appointments, cancelled procedures, and NHS leaders will do everything we can to minimise that and to ensure that patients are kept informed of what is happening.”
Mr Taylor said “we are acutely aware of the fact that health workers take industrial action as a last resort — it’s very rare".
He said the issue is primarily about pay, but “it’s important to understand that, whenever you speak to nurses, they will say pay is part of the challenge but it’s also about workload, about the fact that there are nearly 50,000 nurse vacancies across the NHS".
He said workers had been “waiting for a very long time” for a properly-costed workforce strategy from the government.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday that pay demands from unions representing nurses were “not affordable”.
He said he was pleased that Mr Barclay was meeting unions to resolve the issue.
Speaking at the British-Irish Council summit in Blackpool, Mr Sunak said: “I absolutely share everyone’s respect and gratitude for our nurses, for the dedication and the hard work that they provide for all of us.
“And I think where we are now is, that the unions are asking for a 17 per cent pay rise, and I think most people watching will recognise that clearly that’s not affordable.
“And I of course recognise the challenges people face, and the way that we resolve these situations is we have an independent body that makes recommendations to the government and indeed the health secretary accepted those recommendations in full, and I’m pleased that he will be sitting down with the unions to see how we can resolve this.”
There have also been “briefings in recent days that there will be a pay freeze or pay cap on the public sector next year — that kind of background is not helpful to these talks", Mr Sunak said.
Mr Barclay reportedly eager to discuss improvements to working conditions, such as on rosters, but wanted to stick by the NHS pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 pay rise, rather than the 5 per cent above inflation demand from the RCN.
A DHSC source said: “Steve is very much in listening mode, he wants to hear from them about their concerns. He’s very focused on the workforce and wants to do anything we possibly can to get more nurses in.”
But on pay, they said: “We are not negotiating because we have accepted the recommendation of the pay review body.”
Patricia Marquis, RCN director for England, told the BBC Breakfast that current NHS services were “not safe” and the government has “failed to listen” to what nursing staff have been saying.
She said there are some services that need to continue during strike action to keep patients safe “and we will agree with employers what those are and which staff should be working”.
She added that employers across most of the UK needed 14 days’ notice of strike action, adding: “What I can say is that we intend to take action certainly before the end of this year.”
Meanwhile, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, was asked on Sky News if she was in favour of the strike.
She said: “I think what we have to remember is … the conditions that have led nurses to this action.”
Ms Cullen said on Wednesday night that politicians should “get round the table” and start addressing nurses’ concerns to avoid strike action.
The union boss said members have been “pushed” to the position where striking is their only option, adding that nurses can no longer be “ignored” by ministers.
Industrial action is expected to be held before the end of the year at some of the UK’s biggest hospitals, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ opposite Parliament, the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, University Hospital Wales, and Belfast’s Royal Victoria.
The RCN announced on Wednesday that its members in the majority of NHS employers across the UK have backed industrial action.
During industrial action the health service will turn its attention to treating emergency patients in a “life-preserving care model”, with sources saying some hospitals on strike days will have staffing levels similar to those over Christmas.
Some of the most serious cancer cases could still be treated, while urgent diagnostic procedures and assessments will be staffed if they are needed to gather data on potentially life-threatening conditions, or those that could lead to permanent disability.
Other health worker unions including Unison and the GMB will announce the result of strike ballots before the end of the month, among staff including ambulance drivers and paramedics, hospital porters and cleaners.
Physiotherapists started voting on Monday over industrial action, while a ballot of midwives opens on Friday.
The unions are protesting over the pay award earlier this year of £1,400 for most NHS workers, with the RCN calling for a rise of 5 per cent above the rate of inflation.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay called the decision to take industrial action “disappointing”, insisting the RCN’s demands are “out of step” with the economic situation faced by the UK.