Door always open for talks to avert NHS staff strikes, insists Sunak

The Prime Minister has said the “door is always open” for dialogue with trade unions representing healthcare workers ahead of a fresh wave of strikes in bitter pay disputes.

Rishi Sunak spoke about coming from an NHS family as he thanked staff for the “incredible job they do”.

He also defended the Government’s record, telling reporters: “We have found extra money for the NHS and social care. I think that was recognised by many independent people at the time of the autumn statement, that we have prioritised the NHS, that we have listened and put more funding in.”

He defended the independent pay process, which has come under criticism from unions representing nurses and ambulance workers who have taken industrial action in recent weeks and will strike again this month.

“The RCN (Royal College of Nursing), I think, were one of the people who called for it in the 80s, that there should be an independent pay review body process, and the Government has respected those decisions,” Mr Sunak said.

“We’re always happy to have a dialogue. The door is always open. We’re talking about the process for next year. That’s exactly the kind of thing we should be sitting down and talking through, and it’s not just about pay.”

The PM said he is open to holding conversations with nurses to avert further strike action, but said union demands for a 19% pay rise are “not affordable”.

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the pay increase being demanded by health unions is ‘not affordable’ (PA)

Taking a question on how his administration would look to solve the dispute and whether bolstering holiday allocation or pension bonuses is on the cards, the Prime Minister said: “When it comes to dialogue, I repeat what I’ve said before: the door is always open for dialogue.

“We want to have good, two-way, open, honest conversations – those have to be rooted in what’s reasonable, what’s affordable, what’s responsible for the country. I’m keen to have those conversations.

“As I’ve said on pay, those conversations need to be based on what’s affordable. I think a 19% pay rise is not affordable – I don’t think anyone thinks a 19% pay rise is affordable.

“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have dialogue, shouldn’t have conversations.”

Addressing the process for deciding pay increases for next year, he added: “We’ll be setting out more of plans in this regard in the coming days.”

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Meanwhile, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said in a letter to Health Secretary Steve Barclay: “You are already aware that in two weeks there will be two successive days of industrial action by members of the Royal College of Nursing in more locations across England than in December.

“My members are saying ‘enough is enough’ for their patients as well as themselves. I urge you to show a renewed sense of urgency in opening negotiations on the current NHS pay award so that this situation can be avoided later in the month.”

Unison’s deputy head of health Helga Pile said: “Society needs a well-funded, well-staffed NHS so when people are sick or injured, care and treatment is available the moment it’s needed.

“If the Prime Minister is serious about change and doing things differently, he should apply that to his Government’s approach to the healthcare crisis. That means giving his ministers the green light to start talking to unions about improving pay.

“Unless the Government raises wages sufficiently across the health service, experienced staff will carry on quitting in frightening numbers, waiting lists won’t ever be cut, delays will worsen and the NHS will be unable to provide safe patient care.”

Striking ambulance workers
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, centre right, said the union is ‘ready to enter into pay talks at any time’ (PA)

Public and Commercial Services general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “If Rishi Sunak is serious when he says he values public sector workers, then he would give our members an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond.

“If he is serious about having a reasonable dialogue, then he knows how to get hold of me. I’m waiting for his call. There’s no point in him saying the Government’s door is always open when there’s no money on the table.

“And if he is serious about stopping small boats crossing the Channel, he should provide safe and legal routes for refugees.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “By talking about improving the NHS while without even referring to pay, the Prime Minister is insulting the intelligence of the British people. He knows that the suppression of pay has led to the unsafe and unsustainable staffing levels at the heart of the NHS crisis.

“By refusing to enter into pay negotiations that will be essential to any improvements in the health service, he has been responsible for an act of national self-harm. If he wants to take effective action on the NHS, we in the unions remain ready to enter into pay talks at any time.”