Health Secretary Steve Barclay says 10% pay rise for nurses 'not affordable' as strikes continue

The health secretary has appeared to rule out a 10% pay rise for nurses, insisting the move is "not affordable".

Speaking to broadcasters on a visit to Northwick Park Hospital, Steve Barclay reiterated that the independent pay review body is the "right way" to deal with disputes between health unions and the government.

Pressed on whether a 10% pay increase for nurses was reasonable, he said: "Well 10% is not affordable, it would be an extra £3.6bn a year and obviously that would take money away from patient services, essential services that we need to invest in, given the backlogs from the pandemic."

The health secretary continued: "I have discussions with the Treasury, as do other secretaries of state, and these things need to be balanced not just with the needs of teachers, with the education secretary, or train drivers, with the transport secretary, but also what's affordable for your viewers in terms of their own cost of living pressures."

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As nurses joined picket lines once more, Mr Barclay said he was "disappointed in the strikes", adding: "The losers in that are the patients."

But the health secretary insisted he was working "constructively" with unions over long-running pay disputes despite further strikes being planned for next month.

Rishi Sunak reiterated this message later on Wednesday, telling reporters that "dialogue is happening" with trade union leaders to try and "find a way through".

"As we tackle inflation, we need to be responsible with public sector pay settlements, we have to think about what's reasonable but also what is affordable for the country," the prime minister said.

"The government and all ministers are sitting down, not just with the nurses' union, but with all unions to have constructive dialogue and find a way through and we're committed to making sure that we can also reduce the burden of the cost of living on people."

Earlier this month, Sky News reported that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) could accept a pay rise of around 10% to end its ongoing dispute with the government.

The union had initially demanded an increase of up to 19% to cover soaring inflation and falls in real term wages over the past decade.

But union boss Pat Cullen has said she would be willing to "meet the government halfway".

Mr Barclay's latest comments suggest the government is not prepared to accept the 10% figure.

Strikes trigger thousands of cancellations

Members of the RCN voted to take industrial action back in November - the first national strike by the union in its 106-year history.

They said low pay was "pushing nursing staff out of the profession and putting patient care at risk", and called for the double-figure wage rise, along with improvements to working conditions.

But the government has continually refused to re-open negotiations when it comes to pay, saying it was right to stick to the recommendation of the independent pay review body of around 4% when public finances are struggling.

Two strike days took place in December, with two further walkouts taking place today and tomorrow - with thousands of nurses on strike at more than 55 NHS trusts in England.

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The health service is likely to be running a bank holiday-style service in many areas over the days of industrial action.

Thousands of operations and appointments are expected to be cancelled due to the strikes - with almost 30,000 having had to be rescheduled following the action taken by nurses before the new year.

Hundreds joined a march towards Downing Street in support of striking colleagues.

Nurses 'totally heartbroken'

Many nurses and ambulance workers will also go on strike on the same day next month - 6 February - as the pay dispute with the government shows no signs of reaching a resolution.

Ms Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said nurses feel "totally heartbroken" at going on strike, but have no choice.

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"Rather than grabbing our olive branch, Steve Barclay is desperately looking for new ways not to negotiate with nurses," she said.

"Hundreds of impassioned nurses told me in person today that this strike is about discovering their voice after many years of being let down.

The patients who joined picket lines see this as a battle for the soul of the NHS as much as it's about pay rises.

"With just as many nursing staff ready to head into the cold again tomorrow morning, the prime minister must ask himself why and understand that only he can set the NHS on a better path."

A new YouGov poll of 2,000 UK adults found that the majority of people are not confident that they would get the treatment they needed if they called 999 with a health emergency.