The Government has confirmed it is launching legal action against the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) over a planned strike in the long-running dispute about pay.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he was “regretfully” applying to the High Court to declare the walkout planned for May 2 unlawful.
RCN members working in the NHS in England at workplaces with a strike mandate are preparing to take 48-hour industrial action from 8pm or the start of the night shift on April 30.
But Mr Barclay said NHS employers had contacted him asking him to check the legality of the action because the strike mandate runs out on May 1.
He said: “Following a request from NHS Employers I am regretfully applying to the High Court to declare the Royal College of Nursing’s planned strike action on 2 May unlawful.
“Despite attempts by my officials to resolve the situation over the weekend, I have been left with no choice but to proceed with legal action.
“I firmly support the right to take industrial action within the law – but the Government cannot stand by and let a plainly unlawful strike action go ahead nor ignore the request of NHS Employers.
“We must also protect nurses by ensuring they are not asked to take part in an unlawful strike.”
In an email to RCN members working for the NHS in England, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen vowed to “stand up” to Government “bullies” in court.
But she confirmed that members would not be asked to strike on May 2 if the court rules in the Government’s favour.
Ms Cullen said: “Tonight, the threat sadly became a reality. We told the Government that this is wrong and indefensible. The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them – including in court.
“Before the end of the week, the court will decide whether to support this Government’s use of draconian anti-trade union legislation.
“If the Government succeeds in silencing members like you and convinces the court to stop part of our strike, then we’ll have no choice but to cut it short.
“Our strike action has always been safe and legal. We would never ask our members to do anything unsafe or against your professional code.
“It’s so wrong for the Government to use taxpayers’ money to drag our profession through the courts.
“We’re determined to show that the nursing profession is strong and determined and defend our members’ right to strike.”
Ms Cullen has urged ministers to “calm this down” and resume negotiations after an RCN ballot rejected a 5% pay offer.
The union chief accused the Government of treating nurses “as criminals” by “dragging them through the courts” despite their efforts on the front line of the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How low can a government stoop?” she asked.
She said the union had been planning with NHS England and other service leaders for the potential industrial action next month, including ensuring there are protocols for escalation to ensure patient safety is not put at risk.
In a letter to Ms Cullen on Monday, Mr Barclay said the Government and NHS employers were “confident” the strike breached the mandate period after taking legal advice.
He claimed he had “no choice but to proceed with legal action” on that basis.
It comes as the Government continues to face bitter pay disputes on a number of fronts.
National Education Union teachers are planning industrial action from April 27 to May 2 while junior doctors remained locked in a separate row over wages.
Downing Street last week rejected calls for conciliation service Acas to be brought in to broker a deal with the latter.