UK government ministers appear to have rejected an offer by nursing unions to pause planed Christmas strikes in return for further negotiations on pay and conditions.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 20.
The union offered to "press pause" and suspend the proposed action if Health Secretary Steve Barclay agreed to negotiate properly on pay.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Sunday robustly defended the independent review process that the government insists should determine pay increases, as he appeared to rule out Mr Barclay entering talks on nurses’ salaries.
“He has said he is willing to meet them,” Mr Cleverly told Sky News.
“Meetings are different from pay negotiations. Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason — it is to take the politics out of this sort of stuff.”
The war of words between nursing unions and the government was cranked up at the end of last week, as the planned strike action approaches.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen made the offer to suspend the walkout in exchange for pay talks on Saturday night after accusing the Health Secretary of “bullyboy” tactics.
On the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Ms Cullen said she was willing to be flexible but denied her trade union’s position had changed.
“What I am saying is the Health Secretary can choose negotiation over picket lines,” she said.
Strikes across the UK - in pictures
“My door is open, I am offering conciliation [through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] and we can start that from tomorrow morning. I won’t dig in if he doesn’t dig in.”
Meanwhile, Mr Barclay used an editorial for The Sun on Sunday to criticise the planned strikes amid serious pressures on the National Health Service.
The strike is expected to cause major disruption to the NHS in the run-up to Christmas, with ambulance workers also set to strike on December 21.
Nurses and other hospital staff will take action at half of the locations in England where the legal mandate was reached for strikes, every NHS employer except one in Wales and throughout Northern Ireland.
“In a winter when we’re worrying about Covid, flu and Strep A — on top of the Covid backlogs — I am deeply concerned about the risks of strike action to patients,” Mr Barclay said.
“We are working hard to make sure patients experience as little disruption as possible. But with the NHS already under pressure due to the Covid pandemic and coming winter, the risks to patients will be significant,” he wrote.
Labour accused the government of spoiling for a fight with nurses.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News that the government needed to “grow up and get around the table” after the RCN and the Unison union said they would suspend strikes if ministers were prepared to meet and talk about pay.
“I think that is an offer that’s too good to refuse and I want the government to explain why they aren’t prepared to even sit down and talk, even though they know patients will experience real disruption as a result of strike action,” he said.
Royal Mail workers, nurses, paramedics, rail workers and Border Force officials will all stage walkouts over jobs, pay and conditions this month.