LONDON — Nurses across Britain went on strike on Thursday demanding a raise and better working conditions, the first such walkout by nurses in the history of the country’s revered National Health Service.
Despite freezing temperatures across much of Britain, nurses picketed outside a number of hospitals as the 12-hour strike began. Wearing hats and gloves and holding signs that read “Staffing shortages cost lives,” they called for higher pay and more workers.
Nurses will still be staffing the most vital services, such as intensive care units and chemotherapy, dialysis, and some pediatric services, but nonurgent medical attention will be much less available. Hospitals and other health facilities say that they have tried to manage schedules to ensure the safety of patients during the action.
The nursing strike is one of a series of industrial actions taking place across Britain this month as sky-high inflation, rising interest rates and a recession put pressure on workers. Rail employees, airport baggage handlers and ambulance workers are among the others scheduled to stage walkouts over the next several weeks.
The strike comes as the N.H.S. is in crisis, with declining working conditions for clinical staff and amid the spillover pressures of the pandemic. There have been record delays for ambulance response times and a major backlog for medical procedures, among many other problems.
The nurse’s union, the Royal College of Nursing, has asked for a 19 percent raise, noting that small increases in the past have made it hard to attract and retain workers. Nurses are leaving the profession at high rates, citing low pay and staff shortages that force them to work long hours, according to union representatives.
The government has said such a raise is unaffordable and has offered a much smaller increase.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said in a video statement ahead of the strike that her members were “committed to our patients and we always will be.”
But, she added: “When as a society did we stop valuing the very basics of human care and dignity? This is not who we are. It is not unreasonable to demand better.”
The union came to the decision to strike after polling its more than 300,000 members, who make up about a third of the health service’s work force.
On Thursday, nurses were striking across England, Wales and Northern Ireland after negotiations broke down, though nurses in Scotland called off their strike after a new pay offer. An estimated 100,000 nurses are expected to take part in England alone across 53 different N.H.S. organizations. Nurses in all but one area were striking in Wales, and nurses across Northern Ireland all walked out.
Representatives for the union met with the British health secretary, Steve Barclay, on Monday, but union representatives said that the meeting had been brief and had failed to achieve any of their stated aims.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, speaking on Wednesday in Parliament, said that the nurses had been offered a “fair” pay deal and that the government had “consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes,” referring to the various strikes planned for this month.
Mr. Sunak added that he wanted to “put it on record what we’ve done for nurses,” noting that they were given a 3 percent raise last year, even as many other public sector wages were frozen.
But amid soaring inflation, that raise does not amount to much, union representatives say, adding that the sector has long been underfunded, leaving nurses struggling to get by.
“It’s pay recovery, it’s not asking for additional monies, if you break it down,” said Ms. Cullen, the union head, speaking to the BBC from a picket line early Thursday. She said that the union had been were unable to come to an agreement because the government had refused to consider a further raise.
More industrial action in the N.H.S. is expected. Nurses plan to strike again on Dec. 20, while the ambulance service has walkouts scheduled for Dec. 21 and Dec. 28.