Nurses leader slams ministers for ‘reckless’ approach to pay talks

John Bishop says nurses going on strike because NHS is broken

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Pat Cullen, the General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, told the Daily Express that no attempts have been made to avert walkouts on Wednesday and Thursday.

She said the “intransigence is baffling, reckless and politically ill-considered” as the war of words between the Government and unions escalated yesterday.

And the nursing union has set a deadline for progress – or strikes will escalate.

The nursing union said that new walkouts would be scheduled should negotiations over pay remain stalled by the end of January.

All eligible members in England would go on strike for the first time, making it the RCN’s biggest to date.

The latest threat from the RCN union comes before walkouts on Wednesday and Thursday, when nursing staff from more than 70 NHS trusts are set to strike. This includes 55 trusts in England that were not involved in the first wave of action in December.

The Government continues to insist that pay claims are unaffordable and is sticking to its belief that wage rises should be decided by pay review bodies.

Health unions are refusing to submit any evidence to the NHS pay review body for the 2023/24 pay rise until the current dispute is resolved.

Another union boss, Sara Gorton from Unison, added that the Health Secretary appeared willing to talk about more pay for this year for all NHS staff except doctors.

Mr Barclay, in an attempt to resolve the nursing strikes, is said to have asked the Treasury for more money.

He is understood to consider nurses to be an exceptional case but Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has rejected his pleas. Union bosses claimed Mr Barclay told them to help him make the case for Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to open the chequebook.

But there is little sign of a deal in sight and future strikes could involve double the number of nurses.

Pat Cullen, General Secretary of the RCN, told the Daily Express last night: “Nurses are starting the week with perhaps less optimism than the week before. Last Monday, we believed Rishi Sunak was starting to change position and it felt like maybe negotiations or offers would begin.

“But there was no attempt last week to avert the strike planned for this Wednesday and Thursday. The intransigence is baffling, reckless and politically ill-considered. Nursing staff across England are getting ready to head back out into the cold to make the case for fair pay.

“Instead of coming to the table, we simply continue to hear the same meaningless rhetoric from Government about valuing nurses – a profession that cares night and day for patients while struggling to put food on the table for their own families.

“Record numbers are leaving nursing because they simply cannot afford to do it any more.”

The union initially demanded a pay rise of 19 per cent, though has indicated it may accept 10 per cent, but Downing Street is instead considering a one-off payment.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay yesterday warned unions they failed to guarantee patient safety during last month’s ambulance strikes.

He said gaps in responses to Category 2 calls – which includes heart attack and stroke victims – meant lives could be lost.

Steve Barclay wrote to the GMB union and argued that anti-strike legislation was required to ensure nationally agreed levels of cover for future walk-outs by ambulance workers.

Mr Barclay said he accepted that a “certain amount of disruption is inherent to any strike”.

But he argued that anti-strike legislation was required to ensure a nationally agreed level of service cover was in place when ambulance workers join picket lines in future.

“During recent action I have not been reassured that the current system of voluntary arrangements can be relied upon to ensure patient and public safety,” the Health Secretary said.

“While all unions involved in the recent strikes agreed to coverage of category 1 calls, not all agreed derogations for coverage of all category 2 calls, which includes serious conditions such as a stroke or chest pain.

“Given that these calls are urgent, this is material to the risk to life of the strike action.”

He said assurances from trade unions about the level of cover across ambulance services had been “volatile” in the run-up to strikes, with negotiations “still taking place” late into the evening before a strike day.

Mr Barclay said the Government’s anti-strikes legislation would provide the public with “much-needed assurance that a certain level of urgent and time critical care will always continue throughout strike action”.

MPs will discuss the new legislation tomorrow.

Employers will be required to issue work notices seven days before strike action and only after consulting with trade unions.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is under fire over claims he is blocking efforts by Steve Barclay to negotiate an end to industrial action in UK hospitals.

The Health Secretary has reportedly told unions he wants to persuade the Treasury to offer higher pay rises to NHS workers.

But the Treasury is said to have told Mr Barclay he must find savings within the Department of Health of NHS England to fund the pay rises.

Ms Cullen told the Daily Express last night: “If the Treasury still needs convincing that extra money spent will lead to longer-term savings, they only need to consider the record waiting lists which exist in part because of the NHS staffing shortage.

“Poor health and NHS waiting lists have been one of the primary drivers of the increase in economic inactivity among the UK population.

“Nearly 1 in 5 of the pre-retirement age people who left their job since the beginning of Covid are actually on waiting lists.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, who chairs the 14-strong NHS group of unions, and who was present, told the Observer: “On Monday he talked about asking us to help make the case to the Treasury for the investment needed.

Gorton said that after weeks of stonewalling Barclay’s tone was “very different” in the meeting and that he was willing to talk about more pay, including for this year.

“He [Barclay] offered to be the advocate for health workers inside the cabinet. My interpretation of what he said was that he was prepared to make the case for us for investment in pay.”

Gorton has written to Barclay this weekend asking him to organise a meeting with the prime minister, the chancellor and Unison’s general secretary Christina McAnea. The aim, she said, would be to secure extra funding for an improved settlement for NHS staff from outside existing budgets.

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