An attempt to avert a nurses’ strike in England and Wales has ended in failure after Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, refused to discuss the union’s demand for a 19 per cent pay rise, suggesting it would jeopardise the drive to cut long waiting lists for treatment.
After a meeting with Barclay on Monday, Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, complained that he had not been willing to discuss pay. “I needed to come out of this meeting with something serious to show nurses why they should not strike this week,” she said. “Regrettably, they are not getting an extra penny.”
Cullen expressed her “deep disappointment at the belligerence — they have closed their books and walked away”.
Nurses are set to take the first of two days of industrial action on Thursday but the government has said it has no direct role to play in salary talks and that it had accepted the recommendation of the independent pay review body.
The Department of Health and Social Care said Barclay had made clear “that any further pay increase would mean taking money away from frontline services and reducing the 7.2mn elective [treatment] backlog”. He would “continue to engage with the RCN as we move into the pay review process for next year and on non-pay related issues”, it added.
Earlier Downing Street had admitted that a separate strike by NHS ambulance workers in England and Wales next week would cause “serious disruption” even though 750 military personnel will be brought in to try to reduce the risks to the public.
An opinion poll found last week that nearly half of voters blamed the government for industrial action by nurses, scheduled for Thursday in England and Wales, and by ambulance workers, starting on December 21.
Anthony Wells, head of political research at YouGov, said: “The big weakness for the government is a sense that everything is broken. If anything goes wrong, it sticks to them — people assume it’s their fault.”
Rail unions are set to begin new walkouts on Tuesday, amid a six-month dispute over pay and working practices. The RMT union said on Monday that its members had voted to reject a 9 per cent pay rise over two years from Network Rail, the infrastructure operator.
Meanwhile ambulance drivers, postal workers and Highways Agency staff have also all voted to take industrial action this month.
Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, convened a Cobra emergency meeting of ministers and officials on Monday to finalise contingency plans, including using the army to help run ambulances. Taxis will be block-booked to take non-emergency cases to hospital.
However, Downing Street admitted to legal problems concerning the army driving ambulances — unlike NHS paramedics they are not permitted to run red lights or break speed limits.
Government officials said ambulance crews during the strikes would be a mix of military and NHS staff. In practice, NHS paramedics could drive an ambulance to a callout and then a member of the military could take control of it after the emergency had been dealt with.
“We aren’t suggesting there won’t be serious disruption caused by these strikes,” said a spokesman for prime minister Rishi Sunak.
The military will also help to run checks at airports over the Christmas period because of a strike by Border Force staff.
Lord Richard Dannatt, former head of the army, said the military was uneasy. “Soldiers might decide they’ve had enough of bailing the government out of the muddles it gets itself into,” he added. “They might think: ‘I joined to be a soldier, not a strike-breaker’.”
Downing Street defended the government’s decision to stick to existing public sector pay offers recommended by the independent review bodies, which were accepted by ministers in July.
The NHS offer comprised a pay rise for more than 1mn staff of at least £1,400 a year in England, backdated to April 2022. Some staff have been offered more than £1,400, providing them with a pay increase of 4 per cent.
But the RCN has demanded a rise of 5 per cent above retail price inflation, which currently stands at more than 14 per cent. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, told LBC on Monday this was “more than could be afforded”. He said ministers should hold face-to-face pay talks with union leaders.
Unison, Britain’s biggest union, said its members had voted to accept an average 7.5 per cent pay increase offered to health staff by the Scottish government, indicating a possible benchmark for a deal in England.
Labour has refused to take sides and Jack Straw, a former cabinet minister and adviser to James Callaghan’s government, said Starmer had played his hand well.
“Keir has played things very carefully, hopefully distinguishing between what the unions are calling for and the position the party is taking.” Starmer has banned Labour frontbenchers from joining picket lines.
Additional reporting by Philip Georgiadis