Jeremy Hunt hints at lifting of nurses' pay cap

Health secretary says he has sympathy for case made on NHS pay, signalling that 1% annual limit on rises may end

Jeremy Hunt has hinted that the pay cap for NHS nurses might be lifted in recognition of their “absolutely brilliant” work, as ministers ponder whether to relax austerity across the public sector.

The health secretary signalled that the government might scrap its current policy, which is to limit nurses to 1% salary increases every year until 2020. He intends to discuss the situation with the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who is under pressure to ease the seven-year squeeze on public sector pay, which nurses say has seen their income drop by £3,000 since 2010.

“I have a great deal of sympathy for the case that nurses amongst others have made on the issue of pay. I think they do an absolutely brilliant job,” Hunt told about 1,000 senior NHS managers at the annual conference of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospital trusts.

Hunt praised the NHS’s 270,000 nurses for working large amounts of unpaid overtime. “There is an enormous amount of goodwill, enormous amount of time given free of charge, because people care about their jobs and they see it not as a job, but as a vocation,” he said.

The chancellor would decide whether or not the cap was lifted, and “we have our budgets that we have to live within,” Hunt stressed. But, he added: “I have had a very constructive letter from Janet Davies, [the] head of the Royal College of Nursing, since I came back into office. I will be meeting with her and I will make sure that our conversation is reflected back to the chancellor before he makes that decision.”

Hunt’s remarks come after Theresa May was criticised for appearing out of touch and unsympathetic when challenged on nurses’ salaries twice in the election campaign during live TV appearances. Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr why some nurses used food banks, she replied that there were “complex reasons” why that happened. And she told a nurse who challenged her on the profession’s pay in a BBC debate that there were “hard choices” to be made across the public sector. “And I’m being honest with you in terms of saying that we will put more money into the NHS, but there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” she said.

The RCN is preparing to launch a “summer of protest activity” across the NHS in pursuit of its desire to see the cap scrapped. It claims that real-terms cuts to pay every year are leading nurses to quit the NHS, making recruitment more difficult and help explain why the NHS is an estimated 40,000 nurses short of what it needs. Nurse shortages in some places are so severe that patient safety is being put at risk, it says.

Hunt added to speculation that the cap might be lifted in an interview with the BBC when he said that he “would like to be more generous to nurses but also … we have to live within our budget”. He described nurses as a group of people fundamental to the NHS and said he would listen to what the RCN had to say to “try to find a way through what is a difficult situation”.

Davies responded to Hunt by saying: “Pay packets have been cut by £3,000 and England’s NHS is now more than 40,000 nurses short. The government must begin to recognise the impact on patients and nurses themselves.

“Nurses should not have to fund the NHS deficit from their own pocket. This summer, the government has one last chance to scrap its pay cap.”

In an indicative ballot last month of 50,000 RCN members on their readiness to take industrial action in pursuit of higher pay, 91% said they would support industrial action short of a strike and 78% said they were prepared to withdraw their labour for the first time in the NHS’s 69-year history.

Hunt also sought to reassure the 150,000 NHS staff born in other EU countries that them staying in the UK after Brexit would be a key element of the negotiations starting next week.

“We need them. We want them to stay. They are part of our NHS family. It is an early priority for this government to secure rights which we would like to be broadly the same as the rights that they have now, and I want to reassure them and you that this will be absolutely top of our list as the Brexit negotiations start later this month,” he told the NHS Confederation gathering.

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Denis Campbell Health policy editor

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