Ministers were under intense pressure last night to open new pay talks that could avert 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 Labour and from NHS sources that ministers appeared to be playing politics and deliberately “spoiling for a fight”, union leaders strongly suggested that an improved, but still sub-inflation, offer similar to that made to Scottish health unions at the end of last month by the Holyrood government – which has led to strike threats being lifted north of the border – 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 of 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 RCN ballot for action was announced, Barclay has refused to discuss pay levels.
The RCN yesterday stepped up its preparation for strikes on 15 and 20 December. Only five areas of care will be protected: chemotherapy, critical care, dialysis, paediatric intensive care and neonatal. But the unions also hinted at flexibility.
Leaders of the RCN and Unison suggested to the Observer that if a deal similar to that offered in Scotland – between 5% and 11% depending on staff grades – were put forward, this could be a basis for progress.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “By refusing my requests for negotiations, Steve Barclay is directly responsible for the strike action this month.
“Nursing staff don’t want to be outside their hospitals; they want to be inside, feeling 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 under way for the days of strike, especially to keep patients safe. Our Scottish members will begin voting this week on a new offer that came from negotiations there. This must be a lesson to ministers elsewhere that negotiations can avert action, and pay offers are put out to members for a vote.”
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s in the gift of the government to stop strikes across the NHS this winter. But that means ministers must start talking to unions about pay.”
She added that Barclay should look at how a breakthrough had been reached in Scotland: “The health secretary should stop hiding behind the pay review body to justify the government’s woeful wage rise to health workers this year. Better still, he should learn from the way ministers in Holyrood averted strikes with talks and more pay.”
McAnea said the lowest-paid NHS workers in Scotland could get £800 more this year than their English colleagues. “That will give nightmares to NHS trusts close to the border, who risk losing lots of staff to Scotland.”
An Opinium poll for today’s Observer suggests the public is on the side of NHS workers. It finds that 57% of people surveyed support nurses going on strike on 15 and 20 December, 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 over the weekend saying his “door is still open” but they reiterated that he would not talk about an improved pay offer.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, the membership organisation for the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, urged both sides to resolve the dispute and warned this weekend that the crisis of unfilled jobs in the NHS could get worse during a protracted dispute.
He said: “Even if we didn’t have ballots for strikes, 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 work even harder and that leads to more people walking away.” He urged the government and the unions to resolve the pay dispute.
The RCN has written this weekend to hospital trusts in advance of the strikes later this month. It warns that it is the responsibility of trusts to safeguard patients, stating: “In reaching a decision to run a service, it is the responsibility of your organisation to ensure the service can be staffed safely without RCN members who are permitted to participate in strike action.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the government seemed to be playing politics and should focus on finding a deal. “There is a deal to be done even at this late stage to avert 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 in formal negotiations with the unions.
“That unions are prepared to recommend deals in other parts of the UK demonstrates that they are prepared to be reasonable and the government in Westminster is not. It is beginning to look like ministers are spoiling for a fight.”