Ministers accused of being ‘happy to let public suffer’ over NHS pay row

Unions contrast government’s approach with revised offer for firefighters after face-to-face talks with employers

Unison has accused the government of being “happy to let the public suffer” by dragging out the NHS pay dispute before Friday’s action by as many as 15,000 ambulance workers.

As firefighters called off planned strikes after securing an improved pay offer from employers, Unison highlighted the contrast with the NHS, where ministers have declined to reopen the 2022 settlement.

The union’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said a meeting with the health secretary, Steve Barclay, earlier this week had confirmed he was “determined” to wait for the 2023 pay review process to conclude.

“Even with generous timing, that means the end of May,” she said. “They are condemning the public to three or four more months of this. They are happy to let significant disruption happen to the public. They’re happy to let the public suffer.”

Her comments came as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) published details for the first time of proposed minimum service levels on ambulance strike days, under the legislation going through parliament.

In a consultation document published on Thursday, DHSC suggested all 999 calls must be answered on strike days, and sufficient staff in place to respond to “life-threatening and emergency incidents”. The consultation paper specifies stroke, chest pain, loss of consciousness, compound fractures and a string of other conditions.

Unison and the other health unions say the most serious conditions are already dealt with through local “life and limb” agreements with employers.

Under the legislation, employers will be able to issue a “work notice” specifying which individual staff will have to attend on strike days. Those who fail to do so will lose their protection against unfair dismissal.

The business secretary, Grant Shapps, claimed last weekend that ambulance strikes were putting lives at risk, as he defended the bill.

Friday’s action by ambulance workers represented by Unison across five NHS trusts follows strikes by nurses and physiotherapists in England earlier this week. Disputes with other public sector workers, including teachers and civil servants, are continuing.

Firefighters had been expected to announce strike dates on Thursday after voting for industrial action, but the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary, Matt Wrack, confirmed that action had been suspended while an improved pay offer was put to members.

He highlighted the importance of face-to-face talks in tackling the dispute. “We do not have a pay review body, we negotiate with fire service employers – and that’s a big difference from a so-called independent pay review body that supposedly sets a figure, and that’s effectively imposed on people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.


“We have actually talked to our employers. That’s a big difference. Our employers are not our best mates, but at least you can sit down and discuss with them and make a case to them, and we did that yesterday.”

Gorton said: “It does show a marked difference between what you can achieve through dialogue, and what happens when you have yourself held in hock to a pay review body process.”

The Unite general secretary, Sharon Graham, whose union represents some ambulance workers who have been on strike in recent weeks, said: “This isn’t rocket science. To sort these things out you have to get round the table, unions and employers, and find what might be a compromise. That’s negotiating. So where is the chief executive of UK plc, Rishi Sunak, on the NHS dispute? Posted missing.”

Rachel Harrison, the national secretary of the GMB union, which has also been involved in ambulance strikes, said the fresh offer for firefighters would make her members feel like “second-class emergency workers”.

“Ambulance workers in England are feeling like second-class citizens as Welsh and Scottish governments make offers on pay, and now it looks like they are being treated like second-class emergency workers too,” she said.

“It’s clear that the pay review body doesn’t work and is being used as a mask to hide behind, preventing a proper pay negotiation. Ministers need to pull their fingers out and talk pay now.”

The new offer to firefighters includes a 7% pay rise for the current year, backdated to July and another 5% from this July. It was put forward in late-night talks with local authorities. The FBU’s executive is meeting on Thursday to decide whether to recommend the offer to members.

“It is a below-inflation pay rise yet again. I don’t think people will be jumping for joy,” Wrack said. “I think people have had 12 years of attacks on their pay. They won’t be over the moon.”

A source at the DHSC said: “Strikes in the NHS are in no one’s interests and are clearly having an impact on patients. To resolve this dispute the unions should continue to engage in a constructive dialogue about the independent pay review body process for the coming year.”


Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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