Senior figures in the Government have begun to take a position on the planned nurses’ strikes across a majority of NHS employers in the UK, as announced by the RCN earlier this week.
RCN members in all NHS employers in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and all bar one in Wales hit the legal threshold for strike action, alongside many in England (although the RCN has not yet published the proportion of employers in England that mandated strike action), triggering plans for the first UK-wide strike action in the union’s 106-year history.
The union began balloting members over strike action after the offer of an average pay rise of just under 4% for nurses earlier this year, but the RCN is asking for a 5% above-inflation pay rise, which would be equivalent to a 17.6% rise.
The Government has said it will continue to hold discussions with the unions and seems keen to avoid a nurses’ strike, but senior figures have been largely dismissive of the RCN’s pay demands.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, speaking in Blackpool after a meeting of the British-Irish Council, told reporters that health and social care secretary Steve Barclay would sit down with the unions to ‘see how we can resolve this’, according to the BBC.
Mr Sunak said that although he shared ‘everyone’s respect and gratitude for our nurses’, he also added that ‘where we are now is that the unions are asking for a 17% pay rise – and I think most people watching will recognise that clearly that’s not affordable’.
In Scotland, NHS staff were offered an additional flat increase of £2,205 for all NHS staff, bringing the pay rise to around 8% for a newly qualified nurse. However, government representatives have remained hostile to the possibility of a pay rise and has stressed that the 4% rise was in line with the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body.
Yesterday, Mr Barclay said that he had a ‘constructive’ meeting with RCN chief executive Pat Cullen. In a tweet, he said: ‘Nurses do an incredible job & I regret some union members have voted for strikes. My priority is to keep patients safe and minimise disruption – my door is open & we have agreed to meet again shortly.’
Mr Barclay also said in a statement that the union’s pay demands ‘are around three times what millions of people outside the public sector will typically receive and simply aren’t reasonable or affordable’.
Elsewhere in government, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris also expressed scepticism over the RCN’s pay demands.
Mr Heaton-Harris said that it was ‘very difficult to judge’ whether nurses are getting paid enough, adding that they were already getting ‘some more money’ and that the pay offer was a high ask given that nursing was a ‘vocation’.