NHS unions warn of industrial unrest over expected 3% pay rise

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty</span>
Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty

Ministers are likely to face a fresh outbreak of industrial unrest if, as expected, the government accepts a well-below inflation pay rise for NHS workers, unions and professional groups have warned.

Even if there are no strikes over a pay offer at around the expected 3% level, some said another cut in real-terms pay coupled with staff shortages and the legacy of Covid could simply prompt an exodus of workers, with one official calling the situation “a perfect storm for the NHS”.

While the NHS Pay Review Body’s (PRB) final recommendation is not yet known, sources have said the offer for staff in England is likely to be about 3%. Awards in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are decided by devolved governments.

Its recommendation has already been submitted to the government, but not yet endorsed or made public. While some sources predict the news could come as early as next week, last year it did not emerge until the second half of July.

Ministers made clear in their written evidence to the PRB earlier this year that they planned to award NHS staff in England 3% and that any larger figure would be unaffordable.

There was “extremely limited room for any further investment in pay” beyond that because the NHS’s budget had been fixed to prioritise tackling the massive backlog of people waiting for planned hospital care, which now stands at 6.5 million.

Related: UK summer of unrest? Strikes in the air from barristers to NHS

Speaking privately, officials from the coalition of 13 unions, representative groups and professional trade bodies involved in talks over pay for NHS staff employed on “agenda for change” terms – almost all apart from doctors and dentists – said strike action seemed very possible when inflation is running at 9%.

“There is real anger among members about the impact of inflation,” one official said. “It is not just about this year – it’s also the cumulative effect of real-terms pay cuts since 2010. A strike is quite a big jump, but you easily could see how it would happen.”

An official from another body said: “If the recommendation is as we expect it, we would definitely not be happy. You can’t say for certain, but you would think we would be looking to ballot members on action.”

If there were strikes, they are more likely to come among smaller, single-professional organisations, where gaining the necessary support in a ballot is easier than for bigger health unions such as Unite and the GMB, which represent a range of roles.

But several sources said the malaise was much deeper, and even if there were no formal action, a below-inflation pay rise could simply see significant numbers of people quit, exacerbating staff shortages.

“It’s not just about the pay rise, it’s about what it would represent given how hard people have worked, especially with Covid,” another official said.

“They have been flat out and some might just decide to take their skills elsewhere. It takes time to train new staff, and Brexit means we don’t have the people from overseas. I know it’s a cliche, but it is a bit of a perfect storm right now.”

Another professional body official said morale amid members was “at rock bottom”. They said: “They feel completely undervalued anyway, and if they then have to take what is, in effect, a pay cut, you can imagine what that will do. Let’s just say it is going to be an interesting few months.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “NHS staff received a 3% pay rise last year, increasing nurses’ pay by £1,000 on average despite a public sector pay freeze, and we are giving NHS workers another pay rise this year.

“No decisions have been made and we will carefully consider the recommendations from the independent pay review bodies.”