Public support for nurses’ strike piles pressure on Sunak and divides Tories

Observer poll shows 60% of public back strike, with some Conservatives urging PM to give ground to nurses while others demand he hold firm

• Read more: Nurses pledge tougher new strikes

Public support for striking nurses has increased over the past fortnight, a poll for the Observer has revealed, as ministers vow to stand firm against any increased pay offer ahead of further NHS walkouts.

With pressure growing within the Conservative party and among NHS bosses for Rishi Sunak to find a compromise, the latest Opinium poll shows that after the strike by tens of thousands of nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday - the first such action in NHS history - nurses retain significant public support. Three fifths (60%) of voters said they support nurses going on strike for two days in December, up three points on the last poll a fortnight ago. Some 29% were opposed, down one point.


In another cause for concern in Downing St, there also appears to be public pressure for the government to reopen talks with nurses. Sunak and health secretary Steve Barclay have insisted that reopening talks would undermine the independent pay review body that recommended the pay settlement on the table from the government.

However, half of voters (50%) think the government should negotiate on pay, even if that means having to award more than the pay review body recommended. Only 23% think they should not negotiate with unions on pay and stick to those recommendations.

The findings expose the political difficulties Sunak faces as the government contemplates the chance of more strikes by nurses next month. There is evidence that the public has a different view to striking nurses than to other sectors taking industrial action. For example, 45% oppose rail workers going on strike over the winter, while 39% support them.

Privately, senior figures in Downing St acknowledge the differences in public sentiment between nurses and other striking sectors. However, there is also serious nervousness about the precedent that would be set by in effect overriding an independent pay recommendation. Sunak continues to stick to the argument that nurses were offered a 3% pay rise last year when other public-sector workers had a pay freeze – and are now being offered an increase of 4% to 5%.

Sunak has also been attempting to use the wave of winter strikes as a political tool to damage Labour, repeatedly using prime minister’s questions to attack Keir Starmer as being too weak to “stand up to the unions”. Yet there is now a clear split developing among his MPs over the need to give ground to nurses.

Some prominent MPs are coalescing around the idea that the pay review process could be reopened to take into account the high level of inflation in recent months. The idea was raised by Jerry Cope, a former head of the review body, who said revisiting its original finding may be a solution for an “apparently intractable problem”. Steve Brine, a former health minister who now chairs the Commons health select committee, has said that allowing the pay review body to look again at its recommendation would be a “sensible answer”.

However, others involved believe that there is no time for such a review and say that a more realistic moment for the government to compromise is at a meeting early in the new year to discuss next year’s pay settlement. At that moment, they believe ministers, the pay review body and trade unions could agree to a retrospective deal for the past year.

There is growing nervousness on the Tory benches over the government’s firm line against any increase in the offer for nurses. Former Tory chairman Jake Berry and former cabinet minister Robert Buckland have called for a compromise. There are also concerns that “red wall” voters are sympathetic to striking nurses.

Dan Poulter, a doctor and former health minister, said that it was “disingenuous” for ministers to hide behind the pay body as recommendations had been ignored in the past. He said there was no time for another independent review, instead calling for a compromise in the new year. He warned that the widespread use of temporary staff and a vacancies crisis showed that nurses’ pay has simply fallen too low.

“If we go back about 10 years, there would have only been a handful of hospitals spending about 10% of their total staff bill on temporary and locum staff,” he said. “Now, 10% would be a very low figure for most hospital trusts, with most trusts spending 20-25% of their staffing bill on temporary staff. That is not sustainable and it’s not an acceptable place to be.

“I would suggest that some of my colleagues will have postbags filling up with messages from constituents, urging a rapid resolution to this crisis. People will also be concerned about what the impact of this is going to be on their own care or the care of their friends and family. That’s a very real issue for a lot of people.”

Other senior Tories are warning that handing more to nurses will make it extremely hard for ministers to hold back other pay demands. “If they were going to do it, then resurrecting the pay review body is possible,” they said. “But if they did that, they’d have to put a huge amount of political effort into saying this is just nurses, because they have a special claim – and because strikes would undoubtedly lead to a large number of avoidable deaths. You could just about do that. But it will require statements from the prime minister. I wouldn’t recommend it at this stage.”

On Friday, Sunak showed no sign of moving towards a compromise deal, insisting that the deal on the table was “appropriate and fair”.


Michael Savage Policy Editor

The GuardianTramp

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