By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his gratitude on Sunday to health workers, responding to criticism over his government's pay proposal by saying he had tried to give the service as much as he could.
Johnson, who himself was treated in hospital last year when he became severely ill with COVID-19, has come under fire for failing to meet his promise to look after health workers who have been fighting a coronavirus pandemic for more than a year by proposing a 1% pay increase for the National Health Service.
Earlier, Britain's opposition Labour Party stepped up its criticism of the government's budget, calling the pay offer to health workers "reprehensible" and pledging to vote against its freeze on income tax thresholds.
But Johnson defended his government by saying it was investing in the National Health Service and that "we have tried to give the NHS as much as we possibly can".
Last week, his government set out its plans to help the economy weather the COVID-19 crisis, with finance minister Rishi Sunak promising to do "whatever it takes to support the British people and businesses".
And while Johnson enjoys a large majority in the lower house of parliament, his Conservative government's plans have come under fire for what some say is its targeting of lower- and middle-income earners and not being generous enough to health workers, after a year of battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson, who was the face of Britain's campaign to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, promoted what has become a disputed promise that Brexit would free up an extra 350 million pounds a week for the NHS.
REAL TERMS PAY CUT
But in the budget, the government proposed the 1% pay rise for NHS workers, an offer one nurses union, the Royal College of Nursing, called "pitiful" and has threatened to strike over.
Labour, which is flagging in opinion polls despite criticism of Johnson's uneven handling of the pandemic, has called on the government to stand by what it said was an earlier commitment to hand NHS workers a 2.1% pay increase.
"The government is not planning a pay rise...That is a real terms pay cut because it doesn't keep pace with inflation, which is just reprehensible in our view," Nandy told Sky News.
"In the NHS long-term plan the government budgeted for a 2.1 percent pay rise, that is what nurses were promised."
She also said the party would vote against a freeze on income tax levels because "we think that now is absolutely the wrong time to be targeting low- and middle-income earning families for tax hikes and squeezing their incomes".
Sunak has said the freeze is part of an approach to start fixing the public finances as he looks for ways to raise funds following unprecedented measures to support jobs and the economy during the pandemic.
Government ministers have also said that the pay proposal for NHS workers is what is affordable.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told the BBC's Andrew Marr show that the government was investing large amounts of money into the NHS, showing "we recognise the vitally important role the NHS plays".
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)