Ministers came under intense pressure last night to open new pay negotiations which could avert a devastating series of NHS strikes, with health unions suggesting a deal could be reached if both sides are willing to negotiate and make compromises.
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 that made to Scottish health unions at the end of last month by the Holyrood government – which led to the lifting of strike threats north of the border – could help break the deadlock elsewhere in the UK.
Health unions, led by the Royal College of Nursing, Unison and the GMB, are furious that Health Secretary Steve Barclay is refusing to even discuss any improvements to the government’s offer to health service workers, which is capped at 3% and based on the recommendations of the NHS pay review body.
Officials say that in two meetings since the announcement of the NCR share vote, Barclay has declined to discuss pay levels.
The MRC yesterday intensified its preparation for the strikes of December 15 and 20. Only five areas of care will be protected: chemotherapy, intensive care, dialysis, pediatric intensive care and neonatology. But the unions also hinted at flexibility.
RCN and Unison leaders suggested to the Observer that if a deal similar to that offered in Scotland – between 5% and 11% depending on the grades of staff – were offered, this could be a basis for progress.
RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said: “By refusing my demands for negotiations, Steve Barclay is directly responsible for this month’s strike.
“Nurses don’t want to be outside their hospital; they want to be on the inside, to feel respected and able to provide safe patient care. Nurses are the voice of patients and we are proud of our strong public support.
“Advanced planning is underway for strike days, including to ensure patient safety. Our Scottish members will begin voting this week on a new offer resulting from negotiations there. It must be a lesson for ministers elsewhere that negotiations can avoid action and wage offers are put to members for a vote.
Unison General Secretary Christina McAnea said: ‘It is within the government’s gift to stop strikes across the NHS this winter. But it does mean ministers need to start talking to unions about pay.
She added that Barclay should examine how a breakthrough was achieved in Scotland: “The Health Secretary should stop hiding behind the pay review body to justify the Government’s dismal pay rise for health workers this year . Better yet, he should learn from how Holyrood ministers avoided strikes with talks and more pay.
McAnea said the lowest paid NHS workers in Scotland could earn £800 more this year than their English colleagues. “It will give nightmares to NHS trusts close to the border, which stand to lose a lot of staff to Scotland.”
An Opinium poll for today Observer suggests the public is on the side of NHS workers. She finds that 57% of respondents are in favor of the nurses’ strike on December 15 and 20, while 30% oppose it. Almost twice as many people (42%) blame the government for the impending strikes as health unions (23%).
Last night sources close to Barclay said he had written to the GMB and RCN over the weekend to say his ‘door is always open’ but they reiterated he would not speak about an improved salary offer.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the healthcare member organization in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, urged the two sides to resolve the dispute and warned over the weekend that the crisis unfilled jobs in the NHS could worsen over a prolonged dispute.
He said: “Even if we didn’t have strike ballots, we would still have a crisis in the NHS when it comes to recruitment, retention and motivation. There is a feeling among NHS leaders of this vicious cycle where vacancies make work even harder and this leads to more people leaving. He urged the government and the unions to resolve the wage dispute.
The MRC wrote this weekend to hospital trusts ahead of strikes later this month. He warns that it is the responsibility of trusts to protect patients, saying: ‘In making the decision to run a service, it is your organization’s responsibility to ensure that the service can be staffed safely. security without RCN members allowed to participate in the strike action.”
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said the government appeared to be playing politics and should focus on getting a deal. “There is an agreement to be reached even at this late stage to avoid a strike, which is certainly in the best interests of patients and staff. What I find extraordinary and deeply irresponsible is that the government has not spent a single minute in formal negotiations with the unions.
“The fact that unions are prepared to recommend deals in other parts of the UK shows that they are prepared to be reasonable and the government in Westminster is not. It starts to look like ministers getting ready to fight.