Ministers are hopeful that the promise of measures on safe staffing will encourage nurses to accept the latest pay offer for NHS staff in England, in the wake of negotiations with union leaders.
In an interview with Nursing Times, health minister and former nurse Maria Caulfield said that she hoped the recently-concluded pay negotiations had “brought both sides closer together”.
But while most unions are recommending the deal to members, a snap poll by Nursing Times on social media site Twitter has indicated unhappiness with the proposals among the majority of respondents.
Yesterday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) put forward a new pay offer for NHS staff in England, which includes an additional one-off payment for 2022-23 and a 5% pay increase for 2023-24.
Ms Caulfield told Nursing Times she was “really pleased” that a deal was finally on the table and said she thought it was “a good pay offer”, as it considered not just pay but also working conditions.
She said: “I think it is a fair offer, because it not only gives certainty for the next financial year in terms of the 5% pay rise but it notes the sheer scale of effort that’s been put into clearing that Covid backlog.”
Initially, unions, such as the Royal College of Nursing, had been calling for a pay rise of 5% above RPI inflation.
While the latest offer does not meet this demand, Ms Caulfield said it still “deals with many of the concerns that nurses have raised” about pay and safe staffing.
Alongside the pay awards, the government has also committed to a series of non-pay reforms, including ensuring safer staffing levels in hospitals.
However, this promise comes against a backdrop where nurse vacancies are up 10% in a year – at over 43,000.
Ms Caulfield acknowledged these figures and said it would become “a vicious cycle” if the government did not try and tackle them with its latest safe staffing commitments.
She said: “We’re hearing from nurses all the time, just how stressful it is on unstaffed wards. We haven’t got a magic bullet that we can suddenly fill all those vacancies.
“But what we can do is make the working environment a bit easier, so staff are encouraged to stay in their clinical areas,” she said.
Ms Caulfield added that the safe staffing plan would not just be about the number of nurses but about ensuring that wards “have a good mix of experienced staff too”.
Meanwhile, the DHSC also promised that if the offer was accepted it would introduce a separate pay spine for nurses, which would come into effect for the 2024-25 pay year.
Ms Caulfield noted that there were no further details at this stage about what this may look like, but explained that the pay spine would help to “standardise roles in some areas”.
She said: “There is some justification for looking at nursing, to not just look at the pay spine, but to look at how we make sure that roles are acknowledged at the same level for the same level responsibility, wherever they are in the country.
“Agenda for Change is supposed to do that, but I don’t think it actually works that well in practice,” she said in relation to the national contract that has been in place since 2004.
Other non-pay measures put forward by the government in the offer include a commitment to try and tackle and reduce violence against NHS staff, as well as lifting pension restrictions permanently.
Ms Caulfield said: “I’m hoping when members look at the offer, they recognise there is a substantial pay offer on the table, but there’s also a recognition about staffing numbers, about the abuse staff get [and] about making it easier for returners to come back to practice, and sorting out some of the pension issues.”
“I’m hoping that strike action now, with the negotiations, has bought both sides a bit closer together”
Unions representing NHS staff, including nurses, will now consult their members on whether or not to accept the new pay offer.
Ms Caulfield welcomed the fact that most unions with a strike mandate in England have already recommended that their members accept the pay offer, including the RCN and Unison.
However, in a snapshot social media poll carried out today, 70% of nurses told Nursing Times that they intended to reject the offer.
Meanwhile 12% of nurses said they would accept the deal and 18% said they were undecided.
Ms Caulfield said that, while union members were “perfectly entitled to reject the offer”, even with union recommendations, it would be “very difficult” to come to another agreement.
She said: “The difficulty we have, and that we’ve always had, is we’ve got to balance the books and be careful that pay increases aren’t driving inflation.
“If we give a big pay rise, people might feel that in their ages but then are losing it quickly in their bills.”
She added: “Given the fact that the unions are supportive, and they’re encouraging their members to vote for it, hopefully members will be supportive of the measures.”
If the deal is accepted, it could bring an end to industrial action in England, but if unions reject the deal, further strike action could take place in the coming months.
Ms Caulfield, who noted she was not a supporter of the NHS strikes, said that she hoped the negotiations had opened a fresh line of communication between the government and unions.
“I’m hoping that strike action now, with the negotiations, has bought both sides a bit closer together and, going forward, we can have a much better working relationship, and nurses don’t feel they have to go on strike then to raise concerns.”