Rishi Sunak sets up 'tough talks summit' with unions as new strike date announced

British Prime Minister has not indicated if increased pay offers will be on the agenda

Armed forces personnel replaced ambulance staff during the last strike. PA
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Union leaders in the UK have been invited to attend talks with the government on Monday after ambulance workers announced an extra strike date and doctors expressed dissatisfaction over pay and conditions.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he had invited union leaders for a “grown-up” conversation about what the government can afford.

The country is suffering from rampant inflation as prices outpace pay rises and a number of key sectors — including nurses and ambulance crews — have already begun to strike.

On Saturday, Mr Sunak is holding a conference in Downing Street where health service experts will look at ways of tackling the winter healthcare crisis which doctors warn has the National Health Service close to breaking point.

The bubbling dispute with health workers is another imminent emergency.

“We have always been clear that we want to have a grown-up, honest conversation, a two-way conversation with union leaders,” Mr Sunak said.

“That's why the government has written, all departments have written to all their unions inviting them for talks on Monday so that we can have those conversations talking about what's affordable, what's reasonable, what's responsible for our country.

“I think everyone agrees that the most pressing economic priority we have is reducing the cost of living, and getting a grip of inflation is the best way we can do that to ease the cost of living, not only for nurses, but for everyone.

“That's why earlier this week I made five promises about what I wanted to do and that was to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the [Channel-crossing migrant] boats.”

He did not indicate that more money would be offered to fund increased pay offers.

Ambulance workers in the Unite union on Friday announced another strike on January 23.

More than 2,600 ambulance workers in the West Midlands, North West, North East, East Midlands and Wales will be involved in the walkout.

“The government has had months to intervene and end this dispute but has failed to do so,” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham.

“The talks the government has lined up for Monday yet again look like nothing more than a smokescreen and are clearly not a negotiation on NHS pay.

“But this is real and urgent. NHS staff need their bills paying now. Vital health workers are leaving the service now. Patients are suffering and dying now. The Prime Minister needs to step up to the moment and lead. That is what he is paid for.”

Nurses also held strikes late last year in a dispute that has carried on into 2023.

Junior doctors in England are expected to vote for a strike in March if balloted, the chairman of the British Medical Association said.

“We wouldn't be balloting unless we felt that a positive response was going to be the result,” Phil Banfield said.

“It's in the gift of the government to head this off and we would hope that they would see sense and attempt to do so.”

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he was “keen to have dialogue” with the nursing unions.

“There is common ground in recognising the NHS is under pressure and we need to respond to that,” he said.

“I look forward to talking with the Royal College of Nursing and the other trade unions to see how we make any settlement done through the independent pay review body more affordable, where are those productivity and efficiency opportunities.”

Mr Sunak will spend Saturday focusing on how to ease the pressure on frontline services.

The NHS Recovery Forum in Downing Street will see health and care experts look at four crucial issues: social care and delayed discharge; urgent and emergency care; elective care; and primary care.

“As the Prime Minister made clear this week, easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS is one of his key promises,” a Downing Street representative said.

“That's why we're bringing together the best minds from the health and care sectors to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care.”

But he has also been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to reverse the NHS’ fortunes, which have been blamed on “years of inaction”.

Senior doctors say the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&E units struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents.

Discharge rates fell to a new low in England last week, with only a third of those patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving.

Mr Barclay, Treasury minister John Glen, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden and the chief executive of NHS England Amanda Pritchard are set to attend.

Updated: January 07, 2023, 1:45 AM