A much-heralded meeting today between union leaders and the health secretary has failed to resolve the ongoing dispute over NHS pay or avert further planned strike action this month.
Some health unions said they had been left “bitterly” disappointed by the meeting, but others felt there had been a softening in position on the government side over discussing this year’s pay deal.
“Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike”
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay met with health unions today amid the ongoing row over the NHS staff pay offer for 2022-23.
The meeting was sparked by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who last week asked ministers to discuss with unions “what is fair and affordable” for the next round of public sector pay settlements for 2023-24.
While Mr Sunak said it was part of a “reasonable approach to avoiding prolonged industrial action”, the Royal College of Nursing had said only negotiations on the pay dispute for 2022-23 would stop planned action this month.
However, in interviews over the weekend, the prime minister had failed to rule out reopening this year’s deal, leading to hope of progress in the talks today and suggestions that a lump sum might be offered.
But the RCN said ministers had “a distance to travel” to avoid its strikes planned for two days next week in England, while strikes among ambulance workers are set to press ahead this week.
In a statement following today’s meeting, RCN director of employment relations and legal services, Joanne Galbraith-Marten, said there was “no resolution to our dispute yet in sight”.
“Today’s meeting was bitterly disappointing – nothing for the current year and repeating that ‘the budget is already set’ for next year,” she said.
“This intransigence is letting patients down. Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike.”
Health unions have been campaigning for an inflation-busting pay rise for NHS staff for 2022-23, including the RCN which is calling for a 5% above inflation increase.
Most nurses across the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been handed a £1,400 rise, in line with recommendations from the NHS Pay Review Body.
In response, thousands of RCN members took to picket lines in the three countries last month, and the college has organised further strikes to take place on 18 and 19 January in England.
Ambulance workers belonging to Unison and the GMB will also strike on Wednesday 11 January, while Unite members at the Welsh Ambulance Service are to take action on 19 and 23 January.
While Unison head of health Sara Gorton confirmed ambulance workers would “reluctantly” be walking out again this week, she said the health secretary’s “tone has changed”.
“That shift needs to be matched with a firm commitment from the Treasury to fund a wage boost now,” she added.
“Ministers know unless they come up with some hard cash for a pay boost for what’s left of the current financial year, there can be no resolution to the dispute.
“And there must be talks soon to agree the increase health workers are due from April,” she said.
Ms Gorton added: “The NHS can’t deliver quality care for patients until it has the necessary staff.
“Only with proper investment in the workforce can the health service be turned around, public confidence restored and patient waits reduced.”
In addition, Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: “Today’s talks fell well short of anything substantial that could stop this week’s strikes.
“There was some engagement on pay – but not a concrete offer that could help resolve this dispute and make significant progress on the recruitment and retention crisis.
“The public expects the government to treat these talks seriously – it’s time they got on with it.”
Separately, a union source told Nursing Times they felt the health secretary’s position had somewhat softened and that the possibility of backdating pay was not ruled out during the meeting.
Meanwhile, national news outlets have been reporting the possibility of a one-off lump sum.
A statement from the Department of Health and Social Care said the meeting discussed welcoming the input of unions into the pay review process for 2023-24 and “what is affordable”.
Separately, it said the government “wants to work together to attract, retain and motivate talented people and identify opportunities on efficiency and productivity, such as reducing agency spend”.
Mr Barclay “requested further discussions on ideas to make the health service work better and save staff time, that could unlock additional funding”, added the DHSC.
“He said that he is keen to continue a dialogue on this in the coming days as we all want to see a resolution and the more we can work together constructively to find common ground, the better.”