UK Health Secretary 'keen' to talk to unions but 'no pay deal'

Steve Barclay says his top priority is keeping patients 'as safe as possible'

Health Secretary Steve Barclay. PA
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UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay has said he is keen to “continue a dialogue” with unions, but the government is not prepared to budge on pay.

The nurses’ union is calling for a wage rise above the inflation rate but Mr Barclay said they should respect the independence of the NHS [National Health Service] pay review body that proposed the current offer.

Pay rises 5 per cent above inflation were “not affordable”, he said, stressing the need for a balance reflecting taxpayer constraints during the crisis in the cost of living.

Mr Barclay also refused to be drawn on reports that Downing Street had ruled out a one-off payment for nurses to break the deadlock.

He repeated the government’s position that it has accepted the pay review body’s recommendations “in full”.

Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden earlier said it was “not fair” that armed forces personnel are having to cover for striking workers over the festive period, as he urged unions to “give the military a break this Christmas”.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said ministers would remain resolute in their stance on public sector pay despite nurses threatening more disruption in the new year.

Nurses strike in the UK - in pictures

Mr Dowden, who last week chaired two emergency meetings on the issue, said the government was “always willing to talk” to the unions but resisted calls for pay rises above the inflation rate, warning they would end up making everyone poorer.

Ministers faced with impending disruption have announced controversial plans to use 1,200 troops to cover for striking ambulance drivers and border staff this winter, alongside more than 1,000 civil servants.

Unions have called the plan a “desperate measure”, warning that the servicemen and women were not “sufficiently trained” to plug staffing gaps.

And the Chief of the Defence Staff has said the armed forces should not be treated as “spare capacity”.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing has vowed to stage another wave of more severe strikes in January if ministers are not prepared to negotiate on pay in the 48 hours after its members walk out on Tuesday.

Mr Barclay said it was important that the union, like the government, “respects” the independence of the NHS pay review body.

“But I’m keen to continue a dialogue with the trade unions because there’s a range of issues that matter to staff, such as the estate where people are working, such as technology, such as safety,” he said in Chelmsford, England.

“So there’s a number of areas where we can work together. I’m keen to continue talking to the trade unions.”

UK strikes – in pictures

Mr Dowden earlier said “our door is always open to engagement with the unions” but maintained the official position that the RCN’s pay demands are “simply not affordable”.

He said there was logic in sticking to the recommendations of the independent pay review body because they are “supposed to take the politics out of this”.

After the nurses’ strike on Tuesday, ambulance crews in England are due to walk out for two days, December 21 and 28, in a pay dispute.

Mr Barclay has said his “number one priority” is keeping patients “as safe as possible”.

On Sunday, he urged the unions to “honour the commitments that they’ve given” to protect responses to life-threatening and emergency situations.

“Obviously, if the trade unions insist, for example, on only answering calls from the picket line, then that in turn creates a delay, which can have an impact on patient safety,” Mr Barclay said.

British nurses stage first strike in bitter pay dispute with government - video

Unite, which is co-ordinating the ambulance strikes with the GMB and Unison, has accused ministers of “hollowing out” the NHS, maintaining that those taking industrial action are “trying to save the service”.

Labour shadow minister Stephen Kinnock has said that nurses are resorting to “eating the leftovers from patients’ meals” while the Government seeks to “smash working people”.

Updated: December 19, 2022, 12:52 AM