Talks aimed at averting strikes by healthcare workers failed to stop the latest round of walkouts on Monday as a union leader accused Britain's Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “insulting” staff by demanding more productivity in exchange for pay rises.
The crunch meeting between representatives of National Health Service (NHS) workers and the Conservative government failed to deliver a breakthrough in long-standing disputes over pay.
Hours before negotiators sat down, a union leader representing junior doctors demanded a pay rise of at least 26 per cent.
Downing Street called for a meeting with representatives of NHS staff, such as nurses, ambulance workers and junior doctors, as it sought to set a fresh tone aimed at averting looming walkouts. Separate talks between ministers and unions representing rail workers and teachers were also taking place in London.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing union will walk out on January 18 and 19, following two days of strikes last month. Ambulance drivers and emergency call handlers across England are due to take action on Wednesday and again on January 23 in an effort to improve pay as inflation hovers around 10 per cent.
Scottish ambulance workers called off planned protest action last month after union members accepted an upgraded pay offer following intervention from ministers.
Unite, which represents ambulance workers, said members would push ahead with planned industrial action after the meeting failed to end the deadlock.
Onay Kasab, a Unite negotiator, said he felt “very angry on behalf of our members” after the government told the union they would need to “justify” a payment through productivity. He said such a demand was an “insult” to overworked staff, some of whom are working 18 hour shifts.
Asked outside the Department of Health and Social Care after a meeting with Mr Barclay whether there had been mention of a one-off payment, Mr Kasab said: “No, no, all the government are interested in is saying that in order to justify a payment we need to … come up with productivity in the NHS.
“That is absolutely ludicrous. This isn’t a factory we’re talking about, we’re talking about people who are working well beyond their contracted hours anyway just to get the job done because … they care so much.
“So, for the government to be talking about productivity in exchange for a (payment) is an insult to every single one of our members.”
Mr Kasab confirmed thousands of ambulance workers represented by Unite would go on strike on January 23.
Rachel Harrison, GMB National Secretary, said its ambulance walkout would continue as billed as well.
"Today’s talks fell well short of anything substantial that could stop this week’s strikes," she said. “There was some engagement on pay – but not a concrete offer that could help resolve this dispute and make significant progress on the recruitment and retention crisis.
"The public expects the Government to treat these talks seriously – it's time they got on with it.”
Mr Kasab hit out at the government’s approach to negotiations, saying: “Productivity when our members are working 18 hour shifts? Quite how you become more productive, I don't know.”
Junior doctors in England represented by the British Medical Association are being balloted on whether they want to strike in a dispute over real-term pay cuts.
Dr Emma Runswick, deputy chairwoman of the BMA, said junior doctors were requesting a 26 per cent pay rise — or potentially more — to make up for cuts over the past 15 years.
What members are seeking, she said, was “pay restoration”.
“We’re asking for the reversal of that pay cut [over the past 15 years],” she told Sky News.
“So, mathematically, it might even be more and if we have another pay cut this year, it’ll be more again. So, we’re only asking for what we’ve had cut from us back.”
Asked about the likelihood of the government agreeing to such a demand, Dr Runswick said the ruling Conservatives had made choices about where to spend.
“The cost for full pay restoration for junior doctors is approximately £1 billion [$1.12 billion]. They spent quadruple that — £4 billion — on useless PPE. They spent 37 times that on the very useless track-and-trace programme,” she said, referring to measures introduced to manage the Covid-19 outbreak.
“So, all of these are government choices. It’s our belief that if they choose to spend on retention of staff, then they will receive it back many times over in the improved health of our population.”
Dr Runswick said she was “not optimistic” about the union meeting Mr Barclay because only “a very narrow set of things” would be on the agenda.
She said junior doctors were working in “really difficult” conditions which she described as “frankly unsafe” for patients.
A severe shortage of beds means staff have to treat people in corridors, which she said was less than ideal.
Asked about the chance of junior doctors going on strike, she said: “Unfortunately, I think it’s very high.”
Patricia Marquis, director of the RCN in England, agreed with Dr Runswick.
She said the meeting with the Health Secretary was not a round of negotiations but rather an opportunity for the government to set out its stall.
She said that while she was interested in what Mr Barclay had to say, unless union leaders could discuss this year’s pay, the meeting was unlikely to resolve nurses' dispute with the government.
“That will mean that the strikes we have planned for January 18 and 19 will sadly go ahead and that’s just what we really want to avoid,” she said. She stressed that unions must see “a willingness to have a reasonable conversation about what could resolve this dispute”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is under mounting pressure to find a solution and improve the state of the NHS.
He used a speech last week to prioritise reducing NHS waiting lists.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Barclay suggested he was willing to give healthcare staff a bigger pay rise in April — if they agree to “efficiencies” in the NHS.
Ms Marquis said the Health Secretary’s suggestion made her “very, very worried”.
“It shows a level of misunderstanding of the situation the NHS and nursing is in at the moment,” she said, referring to staff shortages and a lack of funding.
The RCN last week said it was willing to compromise on the 19 per cent pay rise sought by nurses. Pat Cullen, general secretary of the union, suggested a 10 per cent increase could be accepted, as she was willing to meet ministers “halfway”.
The government has repeatedly called the 19 per cent request “unaffordable”.