Nursing unions are set to enter “intensive talks” with the government, raising hopes of an end to a series of strikes amid a bitter dispute over pay.
The Royal College of Nursing said it has agreed to pause industrial action while taking part in talks over “pay, terms and conditions, and productivity enhancing reforms”.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay is due to meet the RCN representatives on Wednesday.
The RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said she is “confident” about reaching an agreement over pay for nurses.
It comes as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told the National Health Service Pay Review Body that a 3.5 per cent pay rise for staff for 2023-24 financial year would be affordable for the UK government.
However, the Financial Times has reported the government is looking at a possible 5 per cent pay rise for public sector workers after the Treasury was given an unexpected £30 billion windfall.
The Treasury suggested in a private memo, seen by the newspaper, public sector awards of up to 5 per cent for 2023-24 would carry a “low risk” of setting a benchmark for protracted high private sector pay growth.
Ms Cullen told Sky News on Tuesday evening: “Very pleased to say that the government has agreed to enter into a period of intensive talks with the Royal College of Nursing.
“I'm confident that we will be able to reach agreement about a fair pay deal for our nursing staff.
“The finer detail has to be worked out but I'm very assured by the Prime Minister's intervention, and we certainly will, as we've always said, put our plans on the table.
“They can put their plans on the table but I'm confident that we will come out with a fair pay settlement for our nursing staff.”
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Ms Cullen added: “I'm entering this in good faith, I think this is a significant step forward, every nurse in England today can breathe a sigh of relief and, more importantly, our patients can.
“So, let's get round the table tomorrow, I'm very confident with the move from government and certainly we will do our very best to make sure that a fair pay deal is obtained for all of our nursing.”
Nurses had planned to strike continuously for 48 hours on March 1 and the action would have included nursing staff from emergency departments, intensive care units, cancer care and other services that were previously exempted.
A joint statement from the DHSC and RCN said: “The Government and Royal College of Nursing have agreed to enter a process of intensive talks.
“Both sides are committed to finding a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role that nurses and nursing play in the NHS and the wider economic pressures facing the UK and the Prime Minister's priority to halve inflation.
“The talks will focus on pay, terms and conditions, and productivity enhancing reforms.”
Unite, one of the UK's largest unions, said the government's 3.5 per cent pay rise proposal will accelerate a spring of strikes across the health service.
Its General Secretary Sharon Graham said: “This has to be some sort of sick joke. On the day when figures show that the country can well afford to meet NHS workers' pay expectations, the government is trying to force another year of wage cuts into the NHS.
“This will only accelerate a spring of NHS strikes. This government either does not care about our NHS, its staff and patients, or has a more sinister future in mind for the service.”
Elsewhere, the British Medical Association is meeting DHSC officials on Wednesday after junior doctor members had voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking industrial action.
It is understood that Mr Barclay will not be in attendance.