Whatever people’s individual viewpoints, finally there is at least something new on the table to discuss, unpick and argue about when it comes to NHS nurses’ pay in England.
On Thursday lunchtime rumours began to emerge of a new offer for NHS staff in England, following two weeks of intense negotiation on nurses’ pay between unions and the government.
Several hours later it finally emerged, blinking, into the light of the full media spotlight. A deluge of press releases followed from everyone with a stake in the deal and many more with just a view.
“It is far removed from the 5% on top of inflation that the Royal College of Nursing, in particular, was campaigning for last year”
So, what is on the table? Essentially, the offer includes a lump sum or bonus for 2022-23 equivalent to 2% of salaries and also a Covid bonus worth 3-5% for most nurses.
This is in addition to the 4-5.5% already implemented for 2022-23 for nurses on bands 5-7, taking things up to around 10% for some. Nurse leaders on bands 8 and 9 received a rise of 1-3%.
The extra money for 2022-23 is not consolidated though, so it will not be a permanent increase that is carried over into future years.
However, the offer does also include a 5% consolidated pay increase for 2023-24, up from the 3.5% the government had originally offered and said was all that was available.
So, when it comes to the numbers, it is a compromise. A bit more in pay packets for 2022-23 in the form of bonuses, along with a guarantee of a more generous pay rise than was on offer for 2023-24.
It is far removed from the 5% on top of inflation that the Royal College of Nursing, in particular, was campaigning for when it balloted for industrial action last year – around 19% in total at the time.
There is also the lost earnings from strike days to consider, which may swallow up some of the 2% lump sum payment.
But, for nurses, there are other parts of the deal that could prove very significant. First, the government has committed to a national evidence-based policy framework on safe staffing.
Second, the RCN has secured an agreement from ministers, separate to the other unions, to create a new ‘pay spine for all nursing staff exclusively’.
Although details are currently sparse, this could presumably see nursing staff receiving higher pay levels than other staff on the same bands within Agenda for Change.
The only other alternative would be to create a separate system of pay scales outside of Agenda for Change, in the same way that there are for doctors, dentists and very senior managers.
According to a letter from health and social care secretary Steve Barclay to RCN leader Pat Cullen, the government intends that this new pay spine will come into force for the 2024-25 pay year.
I am advised by those very close to the negotiations that these two commitments from the government are the ‘big wins’ in the deal for nurses, though they will not be immediate.
In terms of recommending the deal or not to members, unions have largely followed the traditional behaviour that I have observed after covering countless previous deals over a decade and a half.
This essentially means that the leaders of the RCN, Royal College of Midwives and Unison are recommending their members accept the new offer, while Unite is not recommending acceptance.
For those unions that are recommending it, the change by their leaders from campaigning for a better deal to trying to sell the one they have negotiated requires a delicate manoeuvre.
We will see a pivot in language that may seem confusing. We have got so used to hearing them strongly criticising the government, encouraging action and demanding a significantly better deal.
Now that negotiations have been concluded between unions and ministers – at least for now – the language will change to that of compromise and explaining why the current offer is worth backing.
This is not always easy. Last time we were in a similar situation in 2018 it was this part of the process that went a little wrong for the then leaders of the RCN, with its chief executive resigning as a result.
The RCN had told members that all nurses would receive a 3% uplift in their July salaries that year. However, only those at the top of their pay bands actually got their pay boosted by that amount.
On average, nurses only saw their pay increase by 1.5%, which prompted a successful petition by more than 1,600 RCN members for a vote of no confidence in its leadership.
No one will be making that mistake again, I am sure. For a start, the current deal, although a bit convoluted in terms of time, is far simpler in terms of who gets what.
True, there are many ins and outs to it, with complexities over what is for this year versus next year, and what is a consolidated pay rise and what is a one-off payment. But there is at least a new offer.
It will now be down to union members themselves to decide whether they wish to accept it or not. The question for nurses is simply, deal or no deal?