Rishi Sunak raised a glimmer of hope over the nursing strikes by saying he was willing to discuss pay, but indicated he would not negotiate over the current deal.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen said she had a “chink of optimism” after noticing a “little shift” in the Prime Minister’s stance on Sunday.
But she warned the planned action will still go ahead without compromise on this year’s pay settlements, as the Unite union accused Mr Sunak of “misleading” the public about the negotiations.
Labour accused him of “taking our nurses and ambulance workers for fools”, with Monday’s talks between unions and Health Secretary Steve Barclay centring on 2023’s deal.
Downing Street declined to deny suggestions that the Prime Minister is open to a one-off payment to support health workers with the cost of living this winter.
Mr Barclay is understood to have advocated for the move but the proposal had faced opposition from elsewhere in Government.
Mr Sunak declined to explicitly rule out negotiations on the current pay settlement as he told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme
the scheduled talks are “really important”.
“When it comes to pay we’ve always said we want to talk about things that are reasonable, that are affordable and responsible for the country,” Mr Sunak said.
“We are about to start a new pay settlement round for this year, we’re about to start that independent process, and before that process starts the Government is keen to sit down with the unions and talk about pay and make sure they understand where we’re coming from.”
Ms Cullen said Monday’s talks are “not going to avert the strike action” in England on January 18 and 19 without compromise on 2022/23 pay.
But she told Kuenssberg: “The Prime Minister talked about coming to the table, now that’s a move for me because I have said, let’s meet half way.”
She added: “When I listened to that there was a chink of optimism and there was a little shift in what the Prime Minister was saying.”
A Department of Health and Social Care source insisted the position on not negotiating on the current financial year’s settlement remains “unchanged”.
Mr Barclay said in the Sunday Telegraph he will take a “constructive approach” to negotiations on April’s pay review, suggesting increases are on the table if unions agree to efficiency savings to make higher salaries more “affordable”.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak is taking our nurses and ambulance workers for fools. These talks are about next year’s pay settlements and will do nothing to resolve today’s issues.”
Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union whose ambulance workers will again walk out on January 23, warned strikes will continue this year without the current dispute being resolved.
“At best, Rishi Sunak is misleading the British public about these so called ‘NHS pay talks’,” she said.
“I repeat that unless and until he accepts the need to make real progress on the current pay claim, there will still be strikes across the NHS this winter.”
Unison will also attend the talks, as will the GMB, which described the talks set to last “just 45 minutes” as “an insult”.
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, said: “Health workers will be hoping the Prime Minister’s comments mean the talks can go beyond hearing solely about the pay review body evidence for the year from April.”
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak refused to say whether he uses private healthcare as Britons struggle with long waiting lists to see GPs and receive treatment.
Under sustained questioning, he told the BBC: “As a general policy I wouldn’t ever talk about me or my family’s healthcare situation.
“But it’s not really relevant, what’s relevant is the difference I can make to the country.”
Ms Cullen urged him to “come clean” and be “honest” with the public.
The Prime Minister also declined to describe the NHS as being in crisis, despite Sir Keir Starmer warning the health service is not just on its knees but “on its face”.
The Labour leader has urged ministers to negotiate with striking health workers and to alleviate the sprawling NHS waiting lists, describing the institution as being in “the worst crisis we’ve ever had” after “13 years of neglect”.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “We’ve got to acknowledge that the health service is not just on its knees, it’s on its face.”
But Mr Sunak would not describe the NHS as being in crisis, instead saying it is “under pressure” and experiencing “unacceptable delays”, after he held emergency talks with health leaders over the weekend.
Mr Barclay has pledged to take further steps to “improve the flow through our hospitals” on Monday, with around 13,000 NHS beds blocked by delays in discharging payments.
The Sunday Times reported that an emergency winter pressure package will include a hospital discharge fund for thousands of NHS patients to be moved to care home beds.
Thousands of beds could be block-bought by the Government under the strategy, which is hoped to have an effect within a month.
Also on Monday, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan will meet teaching unions to discuss conditions and the evidence submitted to pay review bodies ahead of potential strike action.
Strike ballot results are due this week from the NASUWT, National Education Union and National Association of Head Teachers in the dispute, also over pay.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “After two years of disrupted education for young people, strike action is simply not a reasonable solution.
“Union leaders have been invited to meet with ministers on Monday to have honest conversations about what is responsible and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay.”