A government minister has defended the decision to give nurses a 1% pay rise, saying “difficult economic challenges” lie ahead.
Downing Street’s recommendation to increase health workers’ pay by an average of £6 a week has faced an angry backlash across the UK.
It followed a year of NHS staff working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday that the government was committed to supporting and investing in the NHS.
But he added that the country was facing economic difficulties in the fallout from the crisis.
Williamson said: "The government has at every stage been clear of our commitment to the NHS.
"Over a million NHS staff are going to be receiving pay increases over and above that. But, also, we are facing difficult economic challenges.
"We're facing almost three-quarters of a million people who are unemployed and we have in the context of that decided to exempt the NHS from the public sector pay freeze, which is the only part of the public sector that has been exempted from that."
Asked whether a U-turn was likely on the NHS pay recommendation, Williamson said there had "quite rightly" been "record increases" going to doctors and nurses.
But he added that the UK faced "a much more difficult economic period" after the economy had shrunk by 10% during the pandemic.
Pressed on possible NHS strikes over the pay move, the education secretary told Ridge: "No-one wants to see industrial action and I'm certain the Royal College of Nursing wouldn't want to see industrial action."
Williamson is the latest member of the government to defend the pay rise after health minister Nadine Dorries said the increase was all the government can afford.
Health secretary Matt Hancock also backed the pay rise at a Downing Street briefing, adding: “The challenge is that the nation's finances are tight and whilst everyone else is going to get a pay freeze we are able to propose a pay rise for nurses of 1%.”
But unions have branded the proposed increase "contemptuous" and "pitiful" with Unite, which represents tens of thousands of NHS workers, warning that industrial action could ensue.
Watch: NHS pay row - 'Large numbers' of nurses could quit after 'slap in the face' offer
Meanwhile, one nurse called it an “insult” and “hypocrisy in its greatest form”.
The staff nurse, who gave her name as Mel, said the increase for her would equate to an extra £3.50 a week.
“It really isn’t true remuneration for the real-time pay cut that we have seen over the last decade,” she said.
“We have healthcare staff using food banks, so £3.50 is not going to improve their situation in any way, shape or form. I am angry beyond words, both for myself (and) for my colleagues, who I see struggle daily.”
The Royal College of Nursing has set up a £35 million industrial action fund in response to the decision.
A raft of celebrities, including Liam Gallagher and actor Hugh Laurie, have slammed the government for the decision, which followed chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing his budget on Wednesday.
Sunak set out plans to repair Britain's battered coffers, which will see UK households and businesses shoulder the biggest tax burden since the 1960s.
He said borrowing this year was £355 billion, or 17% of national income – the highest level since the Second World War.
It has pushed debt to an all-time record topping £2.1 trillion – around the same size as the entire UK economy.
Watch: Are other public sector workers in line for a pay increase?