Union leader calls Rishi Sunak cheated as NHS pay row rises

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A health union leader has described Rishi Sunak as misled for suggesting NHS staff should drop his campaign to secure a bigger pay rise this year.

GMB national secretary Rachel Harrison made the comment in response to Downing Street’s insistence that she would not talk about improving the £1,400 wage prize for frontline staff for 2022/23 even though it has triggered the wave of NHS strikes.

The dispute erupted on Monday, the day tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance staff staged an unprecedented joint walkout in the biggest strike in NHS history.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said Sunak wanted to bring the wage deal forward to 2023/24 and “not back down”.

Asked what the government’s plan was to end the escalating series of strikes, the spokesman reiterated his position that large wage increases risk fueling already rampant inflation.

“But we want to find a way forward. We think the right way to do it is to talk about the [2023/24] payment offer before evidence is presented to the payment review body.


Pressed on whether unions should “give up hope” of negotiating pay levels for 2022/23, the number 10 official said: “I think we would say we want to keep talking about ways forward.”

The unions responded with fury, accusing Sunak of trying to ignore the main reason why nurses, ambulance staff and paramedics have organized walkouts since December 15.

“GMB ambulance workers and other healthcare workers are on strike over this year’s pay. Ignoring their calls and kicking the can on next year’s payment doesn’t help resolve the current dispute,” Harrison said.

“If you think GMB members will be fooled into pretending this year’s cost-of-living crisis didn’t happen, you’re delusional.”

Health minister Maria Caulfield, who used to be an NHS cancer nurse, reiterated the government line. She said: “We’ve been pretty clear that we’re not going to be looking at the current year’s pay award.”

One union official said: “Simply saying ‘forward, not backward’ is nonsense. The unions made it very clear to health secretary Steve Barclay when we met him last month that there has to be a movement on NHS wages now or the strikes will continue, possibly for months.”

Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “Under the watch of the Westminster government, it is NHS pay that has gone backwards. Health workers are on strike to improve wages and staffing this year. Talking about the salary increase that corresponds to them in April will not end the dispute.

Both unions urged Sunak to follow the more proactive approach taken by the Scottish National Party and Labor devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. Both governments have offered NHS staff far more than Barclay’s £1,400 in an effort to break the impasse.

Unions in Wales called off planned strikes last week after the Cardiff government offered staff an extra 3% on top of £1,400, equating to a raise of around 4% for many employees. However, only half of the 3% would increase base salaries. The other 1.5% would be a single payment.

Labor leader Keir Starmer accused ministers of doing nothing to resolve the dispute. Many people would be “absolutely flabbergasted that the government is still sitting around, showing no leadership in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, making the situation so much worse than it would otherwise be,” he said.

The NHS chief executive of King’s College hospital in London, Professor Clive Kay, said strikes last month by nurses, ambulance crews and paramedics forced him to reschedule 431 non-urgent operations and 938 outpatient appointments.

Related: Deadlock over NHS payment puts patients at risk, head nurses warn

Referring to the fact that the NHS in England would be affected by stoppages every day this week except Wednesday, he said: “This week’s strike is likely to have a similar impact, so we urge all parties to find a way to go. as fast as possible.

“We support the right of nurses to strike and, to date, have been able to continue to provide emergency and survival care on strike days.

“However, the longer the strikes go on, the more difficult it will be for our teams to deliver the care they want, and unfortunately this will have an impact on patients, many of whom have been waiting a long time for treatment as a result of the pandemic. .”

In a debate of pressing questions on the strikes in the House of Commons on Monday, Conservative MPs largely backed the government’s refusal to discuss this year’s wage deal with unions. But Steve Brine, the Conservative chairman of the health select committee, has urged ministers to speed up the NHS pay review process for next year, which he believes could help end the current dispute.

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