Health workers in England criticised a proposed pay rise of 1 per cent as a "kick in the teeth" for staff who are giving "absolutely everything" during the pandemic.
Ministers defended the proposal as “the most we can afford” because public finances were under pressure, but anger was beginning to brew among backbench MPs, with one criticising the plan as inept.
The pay rise to take effect next year, was recommended by the Department of Health in a submission to an independent panel that advises on National Health Service salaries.
It is the only increase available for any government worker because of a pay freeze across the public sector.
But unions said the 1 per cent increase was an insult for doctors and nurses who had worked tirelessly throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Dame Donna Kinnai calculated the pay rise at just £3.50 ($4.88) a week in extra take-home pay for an experienced nurse.
"This is pitiful and bitterly disappointing. The government is dangerously out of touch with nursing staff, NHS workers and the public,” she said.
"Nobody would think that is fair in the middle of a pandemic and it will do nothing to prevent the exodus from nursing."
British Medical Association council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it came as a “kick in the teeth” after a decade in which doctors had experienced real-term pay cuts of up to 30 per cent.
"This is a total dereliction of the government's moral duty and obligation to a workforce that is keeping the NHS on its feet and patients alive," he said.
Unison, which represents staff in the public sector, said the public would be horrified by the small pay rise.
“A 1 per cent pay rise is the worst kind of insult the government could give health workers who’ve given their absolute everything over the past year,” said Sara Gorton, the union’s head of health.
Health Minister Nadine Dorries, a former nurse, said the government recognised the “sacrifice and commitment” of health workers but she highlighted the country’s current debt levels.
“The 1 per cent pay rise is the most we can afford,” she told Sky News.
“It’s what the offer is, but it would be wrong to say a single person in government does not appreciate the efforts of nurses, we absolutely do.
“Everybody in an ideal world would love to see nurses paid far more, but we are coming out of a pandemic which has seen huge borrowing and cost to the government. The priority now has to be saving people's jobs, which is why the furlough scheme has been extended through to autumn.”
The move stirred up disquiet on the ruling Conservative Party's backbenches.
Tory MP criticises 'inept' NHS pay proposal
Sir Roger Gale, Tory MP for North Thanet, said the government's handling of the situation was inept given the "exceptional circumstances" faced by health workers during the pandemic. He suggested the government could make a tax-free one-off payment to recognise their efforts.
"I know that over a period of three years nurses have had a considerable pay increase but that is not what the public wants in terms of recognition in terms of a wholly exceptional situation," he told BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.
“This is not just about nurses, this is about ancillary staff – the people who do the mopping up when people have died – and we need to remember that as well.”
Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party, called on the government to recognise the country’s “Covid heroes”.
“You can’t rebuild a country by cutting nurses’ pay,” he said.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the move was “effectively a pay cut” in light of projected inflation levels.
“Those ministers who were taking photographs of themselves clapping our NHS staff on their doorsteps need to explain why they’re imposing this pay cut on NHS staff,” he said.
“I think the British public will be shocked and appalled at this and [finance chief] Rishi Sunak needs to think again.”