Health Secretary Steve Barclay is considering offering NHS staff a pay rise in the spring in a bid to end the strikes, but has ruled out any immediate change to current wages.
The stalemate between the unions and the government appeared to show no signs of abating on Thursday morning, following two days of historic action by nurses and paramedics.
NHS leaders have warned that they are preparing for an increase in demand for emergency treatment, as they urged ministers to negotiate payment to stop further strikes next year.
In a Thursday tweet, Barclay said his door is “always open to talk to unions about concerns about working conditions.”
But he added: “We have an independent salary review body … and we will continue to defer that process to ensure that decisions balance the needs of staff and the broader economy.”
The pay review body (PRB) has recommended pay increases of around £1400, around 4%, for most NHS staff, but unions say this is not enough to keep up with skyrocketing inflation.
The government says it cannot afford to make a new offer, but has not ruled out a new deal early next year.
Healthcare workers typically receive a retroactive pay raise in the summer, despite recommendations by the independent pay review body in April.
The Telegraph reported that Steve Barclay, the health secretary, wants next year’s PRB process to be sped up so that extra money can be added to pay for packages at the “earliest opportunity.”
While this does not signify a new or “fast-track” payment offer, a source close to the cabinet minister told Sky News political correspondent Ali Fortescue that he is “eager to move forward” with the process and does not want it to be ” bogged down” as it has been in the past.
The process of setting salary recommendations for next year is already underway and there is an “opportunity in the spring to assess whether the salary increases are affordable,” the source said.
But Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “Before embarking on the 2023 pay round, ministers need to accept that they have not increased salaries enough to prevent key staff from leaving service this year.” .
“The pay review body process is no longer working for NHS or government staff. Direct talks with ministers to resolve pay issues is the way to go.”
The unions, which have been calling for pay increases to combat inflation, have said they expect NHS workers to be offered a 2% raise next year, according to a letter sent by Barclay to the PRB last month.
Health chiefs have intensified calls for the government to negotiate with unions over wages as they prepare for a challenging winter.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told Sky News the health service “managed as well as could be expected” during the strikes due to planning and the public making “less use of 999”.
But he warned that the NHS “cannot afford to escalate into more labor action over the winter” and urged the government and unions to reach an agreement.
NHS ‘pays the price’ for austerity
He said the NHS is “paying the price” for 10 years of austerity, the build-up of COVID and failing to address workforce issues as job openings hit 130,000.
Taylor said: “This winter is going to be incredibly tough, there’s nothing we can do about it. But the industrial action adds to what is already a challenging situation, so on behalf of NHS leaders I repeat the I call on the government to re-engage in good faith negotiations with the unions and try to find a way to prevent further strikes over the winter.”
Ministers have continually insisted that wage negotiations are not up to them, as independent wage review bodies recommend what wage increases should be, and the government has accepted this.
Wage review bodies are made up of experts in their field with no political affiliations who take evidence from a variety of sources, including unions and personnel.
But last week the GMB union, which represents tens of thousands of healthcare workers, announced it was withdrawing from the process used by the government to set NHS wages, as it questioned the independence of the PRB.
Some Conservative MPs have also called on ministers to ask NHS pay reviewers to reconsider their recommendations as a way to end strikes by offering higher raises.
The government has insisted that higher wage offers are not affordable and that money should be withdrawn from frontline services.
There were no signs of the stalemate ending last night as Unite general secretary Sharon Graham accused Barclay of a “blatant lie” for saying ambulance unions had made a “conscious decision” to inflict harm on patients. .
More ambulance strikes planned next week, with unions threatening more action next year unless there are moves in salary negotiations.
Workers in several other industries are also set to strike in preparation for Christmas.