Ministers came under intense pressure last night to start new pay talks that could prevent a devastating series of NHS strikes, as healthcare unions suggested a deal could be reached if both sides were willing to bargain and compromise.
Amid claims from Labor and NHS sources that ministers appeared to be playing politics and deliberately “spoiling a fight”, union leaders strongly suggested that an improved, but still sub-inflationary offer, similar to the one made to Scottish health unions at the end. of last month by the Holyrood government, which has led to the lifting of strike threats north of the border, could help break the deadlock in other parts of the UK.
Health unions, led by the Royal College of Nursing, Unison and the GMB, are furious that the health secretary Steve Barclay he refuses to even discuss any improvements to the government’s offer to health care workers, which is capped at 3% and is based on the recommendations of the NHS wage review body.
Officials say that in two meetings since the RCN’s action ticket was announced, Barclay has refused to discuss salary levels.
The RCN yesterday intensified its preparation for the December 15 and 20 strikes. Only five areas of care will be protected: chemotherapy, intensive care, dialysis, pediatric and neonatal intensive care. But the unions also hinted at flexibility.
RCN leaders and Unison suggested to the Observer that if an arrangement similar to that offered in Scotland (between 5% and 11% depending on the qualification of staff) were to come forward, this could be a basis for progress.
RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said: “By rejecting my bargaining requests, Steve Barclay is directly responsible for this month’s strike.
“Nurses don’t want to be out of their hospitals; they want to be inside, feel respected and able to provide safe care to patients. Nurses are the voice of patients and we are proud of our strong public support.
“Advanced planning for strike days is underway, especially to keep patients safe. Our Scottish members will begin voting this week on a new offer that has emerged from negotiations there. This should be a lesson to ministers elsewhere that negotiations can prevent action, and offers of payment are submitted to members for a vote.”
Unison Secretary General Christina McAnea said: “It is a gift from the government to stop strikes across the NHS this winter. But that means ministers need to start talking to unions about wages.”
He added that Barclay should see how a breakthrough had been made in Scotland: “The health secretary should stop hiding behind the pay review body to justify the government’s regrettable pay increase for health workers this year. Better still, he should learn from the way ministers at Holyrood avoided strikes with talks and more pay.”
McAnea said the lowest paid NHS workers in Scotland could receive £800 more this year than their English counterparts. “That will give NHS trusts near the border nightmares, who risk losing a lot of staff in Scotland.”
An Opinium poll for today Observer suggests that the public is on the side of NHS workers. It finds that 57% of the people surveyed support the nurses who go on strike on December 15 and 20, while 30% oppose it. Almost twice as many people (42%) blame the government for pending strikes than the health unions (23%).
Sources close to Barclay said last night that he had written to GMB and RCN over the weekend saying his “door is still open” but reiterated that he would not be discussing a pay increase offer.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the organization for members of the health system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, urged both sides to resolve the dispute and warned this weekend that the crisis of vacancies in the NHS could worsen during a prolonged dispute.
He said: “Even if we didn’t have strike tickets, we would still have a crisis in the NHS in recruitment, retention and motivation. There is a sense among NHS leaders of this vicious cycle where vacancies make the job even more difficult and that leads to more people leaving.” He urged the government and unions to resolve the wage dispute.
The RCN has written this weekend to the hospital trusts in anticipation of the strikes at the end of this month. It advises that it is the responsibility of trusts to safeguard patients, stating: “When making the decision to run a service, it is the responsibility of your organization to ensure that the service can be delivered safely without RCN members being allowed to participate in strikes. action.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the government appeared to be playing politics and should focus on finding a deal. “A deal has to be made even at this late stage to avoid a strike, which is surely in the best interest of patients and staff. What I find extraordinary and profoundly irresponsible is that the government has not spent a minute in formal negotiations with the unions.
“That unions are prepared to recommend deals in other parts of the UK shows that they are prepared to be reasonable and the Westminster government is not. It’s starting to look like ministers are picking a fight.”