Nurses have accused the government of "choosing strike action" as they announced two days of walkouts next month in a dramatic escalation of the pay row raging across the NHS.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced its members will stage their first ever national strike over pay and patient safety on 15 and 20 December.
It said the government had turned down its offer of formal, detailed negotiations as an alternative to industrial action.
The RCN said the economic argument for paying nursing staff fairly was clear when billions of pounds was being spent on agency staff to plug workforce gaps.
It added that in the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, with poor pay contributing to staff shortages across the UK, which it warned was affecting patient safety.
There are 47,000 unfilled registered nurse posts in England’s NHS alone, it added.
The strikes will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The RCN said it will announce which particular NHS employers be striking next week, when formal notifications are submitted.
The average pay for a nurse stands at £33,384, according to the NHS and estimates by the RCN, while a newly-qualified nurse earns a minimum of £27,055 – below the average median salary of around £32k.
A junior nurse can earn a potential maximum of £32,934, while a senior nurse can expect to earn anywhere between £33,706 and £40,588.
Specialist nurses with plenty of experience can start off earning £41,659 but can command up to £47,672 as a maximum.
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The pay scale for chief nurses varies widely, starting from £48,526 and going up to as much as £91,787, based on experience or how much expertise they bring to the role.
Nurses tend to qualify while under the age of 30, according to nurses.co.uk, while more than 50% of adult nurses are over 40 – meaning they have over five years experience and a higher salary as a result.
With newly-qualified nurses automatically starting at the bottom end of the pay scale under nursing bandings, pay increases as they move further along the band.
However, once nurses reach the top of their banding they will only receive annual government increases – meaning their pay will not increase automatically unless they move into a higher band.
Newly-qualified nurses sit in band 5 but bands can move up to the top (band 9) with more training and more experience.
Chief nurses sit in band 8, with salaries increasing largely in this banding due to the extra responsibility and longer hours from managing a large team of staff.
Band 9 is exclusively for consultant level nurses, who will be experts in their field and will help shape high-level decision-making.
Nurses are striking over the NHS pay review body’s recommendation of a £1,400 pay rise rather than the increase of at least 15% unions are demanding.
RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said: “Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time.
“My offer of formal negotiations was declined and, instead, ministers have chosen strike action. They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute.
“Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve."