The Guardian

Threat of nurses’ strike over 3% pay award for NHS staff

- Denis Campbell Aubrey Allegretti

Ministers have offered more than 1 million NHS staff in England a 3% pay rise, three times higher than the initial 1% offer that sparked fury among frontline workers.

However, nurses are likely to reject the award as too low and may take industrial action in protest. Other health unions also plan to ballot membership­s over possible strikes.

After a day of confusion and rising tensions, the government dropped plans to make only 1.5% of the 3% uplift a permanent increase to salaries, with the other 1.5% in effect a one-off bonus. It came after staff groups warned privately they would condemn a deal structured that way.

However, the government decision to exclude from the pay award the NHS’s 61,000 junior doctors – all medics below the level of consultant – is certain to cause deep unease among a key group of staff who undertook a series of strikes in 2015-16 in protest at a proposed new contract.

The pay rise offer comes after the Covid pandemic left hospitals overwhelme­d and forced staff to adapt to full personal protective equipment and the cancellati­on of leave. Waiting lists reached a record 5m patients.

Ministers stressed yesterday that they had accepted in full the recommenda­tions of the two independen­t pay review bodies that advise the government on levels of NHS pay. The Department for Health and Social

Care (DHSC) said 3% was a “recognitio­n of the unique impact of the pandemic on the NHS”.

The 3% is for the 2021-22 financial year that began on 1 April, so will be backdated to then, the DHSC added. It will cover most NHS staff, including nurses, paramedics, consultant doctors, dentists and salaried GPs but not doctors and dentists who are still in training.

“NHS staff are rightly receiving a pay rise this year despite the wider public sector pay pause, in recognitio­n of their extraordin­ary efforts,” said Sajid Javid, the health secretary.

The DHSC disclosed the offer at 6pm, hours after

‘NHS workers know their worth and so do the public. Shame on the government’

Rachel Harrison GMB union

pulling the announceme­nt at the last minute from a ministeria­l statement to MPs by health minister, Helen Whately. It did not explain why.

Health unions criticised the 3% offer as “grossly inadequate” and “paltry” given frontline workers’ work in tackling the pandemic and the real-terms fall in income over a decade, during which they got rises of just 1% or had their salaries frozen.

Organisati­ons representi­ng NHS trusts were more positive. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, welcomed the decision to ditch the 1% offer made earlier this year, which Boris Johnson had insisted showed ministers were giving NHS staff “as much as we can”.

But Hopson added: “It is disappoint­ing to hear that the 3% rise has not been applied for all grades of staff, including junior doctors, as trust leaders emphasised the need for a fair deal to be applied across the whole workforce. Overall, this is a helpful improvemen­t on the government’s initial 1% proposal, which understand­ably provoked widespread condemnati­on.”

Pat Cullen, the acting general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which had argued for nurses to get a 12.5% rise, said: “When the Treasury expected inflation to be 3.7%, ministers are knowingly cutting pay for an experience­d nurse by over £200 in real terms.” Cullen warned that nurses in England could go on strike for the first time. The RCN’s members in Scotland have already rejected a 4% offer from the Scottish government. “The profession will not take this lying down,” she said. “We will be consulting members on what action they would like to take next.”

The RCN has set aside £35m to cover the costs of a potential strike and is training 25,000 members as workplace activists to help it ensure that at least half of members vote in any ballot, to comply with trade union laws brought in by the Conservati­ves.

Unite branded the pay offer “grossly inadequate and underwhelm­ing, given the sacrifices health staff have made over the last 18 months combating coronaviru­s”. Rachel Harrison, a national officer with the GMB, said: “NHS workers know their worth and so do the public – shame on the government who don’t.” Both unions will consult their members to gauge the strength of feeling about the award.

Unions’ highly critical reaction raises the prospect of the government facing a period of significan­t discontent among NHS staff, especially nurses. Consultant­s, who were seeking a 5% increase, recently warned that they may refuse to do paid or unpaid overtime in protest.

Labour attacked ministers for the “shoddy, ill-thought through” proposal and described it as another example of a government U-turn. Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said: “After their hypocrisy applauding NHS workers while trying to cut their pay, the government must make our NHS and key workers feel supported and valued after all they have done for us.”

The Labour-run Welsh government also said it was awarding a 3% pay rise to NHS workers.

Danny Mortimer, the chief executive of NHS Employers, called the 3% figure “a positive outcome for NHS staff ”, but stressed that it had to be fully funded by the government. The King’s Fund estimated the 3% award could cost up to £1.5bn a year.

It was also confirmed yesterday that teachers in England were to get no pay rise this year. And Labour also took aim at what it said was a real-term pay cut for police officers. Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said it was a blow to those serving the country “so bravely throughout the pandemic”.

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