Unions have criticised comments made by the Conservative Party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, in which he appeared to use Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “justification” for a below-inflation nurse pay rise.
Mr Zahawi controversially urged nurses to call off upcoming strike action over pay and “send a very clear message” of unity to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“We have to come together, this is not a time to be divided”
Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, he said that Mr Putin was using energy “as a weapon” to drive high inflation rates and that, therefore, this was not the time for division.
“That energy use by Putin means we have had very high inflation rates and we’ve got to try and bring down inflation,” Mr Zahawi told the broadcaster.
“If you chase inflation or above inflation, in some cases, pay, then you will embed inflation for longer and hurt the most vulnerable in fact,” he said.
It was the government’s message to unions that “this is not a time to strike, this is a time to try and negotiate”, he added.
“We have to come together, this is not a time to be divided, [but] to, I hope, send a very clear message to Mr Putin that he can’t use energy as a weapon in this way and we will remain united,” he said.
This was why the government had accepted the recommendations of the NHS Pay Review Body and awarded NHS staff in England a £1,400 pay increase, according to Mr Zahawi.
Nurses and other health workers are set to strike in some parts of the country in the coming weeks over pay and patient safety.
The Royal College of Nursing, which has been campaigning for a pay rise 5% above inflation, has so far confirmed two strike dates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for December.
Commenting, RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: “Using Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this government.
“The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute,” she said in response to Mr Zahawi.
Recent analysis commissioned by the RCN indicated that nurses were effectively working one out of every five days for free, because of a decade of real terms pay cuts.
“Nursing staff cannot afford their food and other bills and still fear the worst on energy this winter,” added Ms Cullen.
“But our campaign is about more than today’s cost of living crisis – it’s a cry for help for an NHS that’s had a decade of neglect.”
She warned that it was 10 days until the RCN strike action was due to begin and that she wanted to reiterate her “commitment to meeting with ministers to address our dispute”.
“Instead of negotiating with nurses, they are choosing strike action,” said the RCN leader.
Also responding to Mr Zahawi’s comments was Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison, which has secured a mandate for strike action in two trusts in England.
“The government can easily prevent strikes across the NHS this winter,” said Ms Gorton, who called for formal discussions on increasing NHS staff pay.
“Instead of taking responsibility for trying to solve the growing staffing crisis, ministers want to ratchet up the rhetoric and pick fights with ambulance workers and their NHS colleagues,” she added.
“This won’t go down well with the public,” she said. “People have lots of sympathy for health workers and know that if wages improve so will vacancy rates and patient care.”