Ministers were under intense pressure last night to open new pay talks that could prevent a devastating series of NHS strikes, as health unions suggested a deal could be struck if both sides were willing to negotiate and compromise.
Amid claims from Labor and from NHS sources that ministers appeared to be playing politics and deliberately “spoiled for a fight”, union leaders strongly suggested an improved but still sub-inflationary offer similar to that seen at the end of Scottish health unions were made. of last month by the Holyrood government – which led to strike threats north of the border being lifted – could help break the deadlock elsewhere in the UK.
The 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 improvement in the government’s offer to health care workers, which is capped at 3% and based on the recommendations from the NHS pay review body.
Officials say that in two meetings since the RCN vote for action was announced, Barclay has refused to discuss pay levels.
The RCN yesterday stepped up its preparations for strikes on 15 and 20 December. Only five areas of care will be protected: chemotherapy, critical care, dialysis, pediatric intensive care and neonatal. But the unions also hinted at flexibility.
Leaders of the RCN and Unison joined the Observer that if an agreement similar to that offered in Scotland – between 5% and 11% depending on staff grades – is put forward, it could be a basis for progress.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, said: “By refusing my requests for negotiations, Steve Barclay is directly responsible for this month’s strike.
“Nursing staff do not want to be outside their hospitals; they want to be inside, feel respected and able to provide safe care to patients. Nurses are the patients’ voice and we are proud of our strong public support.
“Advanced planning is underway for the days of strike, especially to keep patients safe. Our Scottish members will begin voting this week on a new offer that has emerged from negotiations there. It should be a lesson to ministers elsewhere that negotiations can block action, and pay offers are put to members for a vote.”
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said: “It is in the gift of the government to stop strikes across the NHS this winter. But that means ministers have to start talking to unions about pay.”
She added that Barclay needs to look at how a breakthrough has been achieved in Scotland: “The health secretary needs to stop hiding behind the pay review body to justify the government’s bad pay rise for health workers this year. Even better, he should learn from the way ministers in Holyrood have fended off strikes with negotiations and more pay.”
McAnea said the lowest paid NHS workers in Scotland could earn £800 more than their English colleagues this year. “This will give nightmares to NHS trusts close to the border, who risk losing many staff to Scotland.”
An opinion poll for today’s Observer suggests that the public is on the side of NHS workers. It found that 57% of people surveyed support nurses striking on December 15 and 20, while 30% are opposed. Almost twice as many people (42%) blame the government for the pending strikes as the health unions (23%).
Last night sources close to Barclay said he had written to the GMB and RCN at the weekend saying his “door is still open”, but they reiterated he would not talk about an improved pay offer.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the membership organization for the health care system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, urged both sides to resolve the dispute and warned at the weekend that the NHS vacancy crisis could worsen becomes during a protracted dispute.
He said: “Even if we didn’t have strike ballots, 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 the vacancies make the job even harder and this leads to more people walking away.” He appealed to the government and the unions to resolve the salary dispute.
The RCN wrote to hospital trusts this weekend ahead of the strikes later this month. It warns that it is the responsibility of trusts to protect patients, saying: “In making a decision to run a service, it is the responsibility of your organization to ensure that the service can be staffed safely without RCN members who are allowed to take part in strike action.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the government appeared to be playing politics and should focus on finding a deal. “There is an agreement that needs to be made even at this late stage to prevent strike action, which is surely 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 on formal negotiations with the unions.
“That unions are willing to recommend deals in other parts of the UK shows that they are willing to be reasonable and the government in Westminster is not. It’s starting to look like ministers are spoiling for a fight.”