Physiotherapists on strike to save the NHS last week (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Health strikes planned for next Monday and Tuesday are set to be some of the hardest to have yet hit the Tories. Ambulance workers in the GMB and Unite unions will join the Royal College of Nurses on picket lines in England and Wales on 6 February.

Midwives in Wales will be alongside the nurses the next day. It will be the first time that these groups have struck together on the same day.

And it will mean parts of the NHS will simply not function for two days. That will return the health service crisis caused by Tory cuts and privatisation to the top of the news agenda.

Already waves of action by nurses and ambulance workers have put the Tories on the defensive.  The government had hoped that health strikers would become the focus of anger about the decaying NHS.

Instead, most people hold Rishi Sunak and his gang responsible for the crisis. The government has so far refused to budge over pay, insisting the issue is “closed” until the next round, due this April.

For the sake of the health service, the unions cannot allow that to be the last word. But after successive strikes, many NHS workers are now asking the crucial question—how do we win? First, it is vital that all health unions name a day on which they will strike together. 

The pressure for such a show of force and unity was strong on last week’s physiotherapists’ strike. At the Royal Brompton hospital in west London, one picket told Socialist Worker, “It’s good to be out on strike. We have seen others come out and not been able to join them.

“I have only recently started this job as a new physio, and I love the difference we can make to patients’ lives.  “But there are big staff shortages and that means people miss out. The whole NHS is in crisis. Now all of us—nurses, ambulance workers, junior doctors, and others—need to be supporting each other.”

And, at Great Ormond Street hospital, in central London, physiotherapist Alex told Socialist Worker, “Every group that strikes keeps the issue in the public view and adds to the pressure on the government. “I’d love to be here with nurses and ambulance workers.”

The action set for next week is a big step forwards towards that goal. But it could have been more intense still. Leaders of the Unison union—which represents many ambulance ­workers, especially in London—decided against joining either day of nurses’ strikes.

Competition between unions is hampering the unity needed to win. That same lack of class politics meant that Unison and RCN leaders turned down the chance to be part of the massive 1 February strikes this Wednesday.

If all NHS unions had struck together with ­everyone else, the combined power of hundreds of thousands of workers would have rocked the Tories.  It could also have pulled in many other workers not currently striking.

The second way of upping the pressure on the ­government is for the unions to escalate by calling far more frequent and longer strikes. Strikers have already shown that it is possible to run services safely while taking action. 

Ambulance unions have ensured that life and limb category 1 and 2 emergency calls are responded to quickly. And nurses have made sure Christmas ­Day-type cover exists on wards. Union leaders will ­doubtless say that such a move would “turn the public against us”.

But that’s not inevitable. Millions of people back NHS strikes because their own experience tells them just how bad things are in the health service.  If we are going to break the back of this weak but vicious government and save the NHS, health service strikers must hit the Tories harder than ever.

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