The Health Secretary insisted he has had “constructive talks” with unions after one leader accused the Government of not being an honest negotiating partner.
Steve Barclay said further strike action by ambulance workers this week is “hugely disappointing” and will “inevitably” cause disruption to healthcare.
Thousands of members of Unison, Unite and the GMB unions are set to walk out across England and Wales on Monday as part of continued industrial action in the health service.
Up to 15,000 Unison ambulance workers will strike for the third time in five weeks and will be joined by 5,000 of their NHS colleagues at two hospital trusts in Liverpool.
The Government has been in talks with unions but Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said the issue at the heart of the problem – pay – has not been on the table.
She said a double-digit pay rise must be offered to striking NHS staff and described the Government as appearing willing to “talk about anything, but they won’t talk about pay”.
Ms Graham indicated a 10% pay rise would be considered by union members, insisting Labour should show “real leadership” by coming out and stating that is what it would offer if it was the party in power.
Speaking to broadcasters during a hospital visit last week, Mr Barclay appeared to rule out a 10% pay rise for nurses, insisting it was “not affordable”.
On Sunday, Mr Barclay issued a statement insisting he had had “constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process for 2023/24” and would continue talks about “what is affordable and fair”.
Unions have been calling for the 2022/23 pay award to be reviewed.
Ms Graham accused the Government of either being incompetent when it comes to negotiations, or wanting to privatise the NHS.
She told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “They’re not pay talks and this is the problem. The big issue here is about pay. There is an issue where the ambulance workers, the nurses, the NHS, are saying we need a pay rise.
“The public is supporting that pay rise as we can see from surveys and we’ve got the employer, in this instance the Government, who will talk about anything, but they won’t talk about pay.”
She described Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as being “missing in action” and said she believed the Government was either at an “unreal” level of incompetence in terms of negotiating or “looking at this as the moment they can privatise the NHS”.
She added: “There is something unusual going on here that they will not come to the table. There are choices that can be made that means we can pay for this.
“There is not a problem about paying, we’re the fifth richest country in the world. There is something going on here. Otherwise they are at a level of incompetence not known because it’s unreal.”
In what appeared to be a sign of poor relations between the Government and unions, Ms Graham accused ministers of “lying” and not being “an honest partner at the other side of the table”.
She said: “I’m negotiating with somebody at the moment that I don’t think wants resolution, and that’s a real problem.”
Ms Graham said the Government must offer a double-digit pay rise instead of “dancing round their handbags”.
She told the programme: “I think it’s really clear that what we’re talking about is a double-digit pay rise. That’s what we’re talking about.
“The RCN have already said they’d meet them halfway. I don’t know how many more hints do they want to take on that?
“So, it’s a double-digit pay rise. If they came in the room, and they offered a double-digit pay rise, we would take that back to our members and our members would make the decision.”
Mr Barclay said: “It is hugely disappointing some ambulance workers are continuing to take industrial action. While we have contingency plans in place to mitigate risks to patient safety, there will inevitably be further disruption.
“It is important people continue coming forward for treatment – call 999 in life threatening emergencies and use NHS 111 online, local pharmacies and GP services for non-life threatening care.
“I have had constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process for 2023/24, and am keen to continue talking about what is affordable and fair.”
NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “As with other ambulance strikes, the message to patients remains that it is vital to come forward and seek emergency care if needed.
“This includes calling 999 for life-threatening emergencies as well as using 111 online for other health needs where you will receive clinical advice on the best next steps to take.
“People should also continue to use local services such as pharmacies and general practice as they normally would which aren’t impacted by strike action.”
February 6 is likely to see the biggest strike action the NHS has ever experienced, with thousands of nurses and ambulance workers due to stage walkouts if no deal has been reached by then.