UK Health Secretary says he’s ‘keen’ to talk to unions but won’t budge on pay
The Health Secretary has said he is “keen” to “continue a dialogue” with unions while again suggesting ministers are not prepared to budge on pay.
Steve Barclay said the nurses’ union which is calling for an inflation-busting wage hike should respect the independence of the NHS pay review body that proposed the current offer.
He insisted calls for a 5% pay rise above inflation were “not affordable”, stressing the need for a “balance” reflecting taxpayer constraints during a cost-of-living crisis.
Mr Barclay also refused to be drawn on reports Downing Street had ruled out a one-off payment for nurses to break the deadlock, instead reiterating the Government’s position that it has accepted the pay review body’s recommendations “in full”.
It comes after Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden said it is “not fair” that armed forces personnel are having to cover for striking workers over the festive period, as he urged unions to “give the military a break this Christmas”.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said ministers would remain “resolute” in their stance on public sector pay despite nurses threatening further disruption in the new year.
Mr Dowden, who last week chaired two Cobra meetings on the issue, said the Government was “always willing to talk” to the unions but resisted calls for inflation-busting hikes, warning they would end up making everyone poorer.
Ministers faced with impending disruption have announced controversial plans to deploy 1,200 troops to cover for striking ambulance drivers and border staff in England this winter, alongside more than 1,000 civil servants.
Unions have branded the military deployment a “desperate measure”, warning the servicemen and women are not “sufficiently trained” to plug staffing gaps on the front line, while the Chief of the Defence Staff has said the armed forces should not be treated as “spare capacity”.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has vowed to stage a fresh wave of more severe strikes in January if ministers are not prepared to negotiate on pay in the 48 hours after its members walk out on Tuesday.
Asked if wages will therefore be a priority conversation with the RCN, Mr Barclay said it is “important” the union, like the Government, “respects” the independence of the NHS pay review body.
“But I’m keen to continue a dialogue with the trade unions because there’s a range of issues that matter to staff, such as the estate where people are working, such as technology, such as safety,” he told broadcasters in Chelmsford.
“So there’s a number of areas where we can work together. I’m keen to continue talking to the trade unions.”
Mr Dowden earlier said “our door is always open to engagement with the unions” but maintained the official position that the RCN’s pay demands are “simply not affordable”.
He argued there is “logic” in sticking to the recommendations of the independent pay review body because they are “supposed to take the politics out of this”.
Following the nurses’ strike on Tuesday, ambulance crews in Wales and England are due to walk out for two days – on December 21 and 28 – in a row over pay.
Mr Barclay has said his “number one priority” is keeping patients “as safe as possible”.
On Sunday, he urged the unions to “honour the commitments that they’ve given” to safeguard life-threatening and emergency responses.
“Obviously, if the trade unions insist, for example, on only answering calls from the picket line, then that in turn creates a delay, which can have an impact on patient safety,” he said.
Unite, which is co-ordinating the ambulance strikes with the GMB and Unison, has accused ministers of “hollowing out” the NHS, maintaining that those taking industrial action are in fact “trying to save the service”.
Labour shadow minister Stephen Kinnock has warned nurses are resorting to “eating the leftovers from patients’ meals” while the Government seeks to “smash working people”.
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