A chink of optimism is how the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing described the effect of the Prime Minister’s overtures to NHS staff this weekend. And indeed, the shift in tone from the Government’s previous rhetoric about strike bans is welcome. Today the Health Secretary Steve Barclay engages in talks with the health unions on ways of resolving the impasse over this year’s pay deal. This is a change of attitude, a change of approach and it is very welcome.
The Government feels it cannot simply concede all the nurses’ pay demands — 19 per cent — without damaging its credibility on tackling inflation and setting a precedent for other striking workers in the public sector, including teachers.
But what the Prime Minister has done is leave open the possibility of a one-off hardship payment to cope with the cost-of-living crisis. This would save face, and effectively give the nurses, who have considerable public sympathy, at least something of what they want. More pay is more pay, whether it is billed as a one-off payment or a revised pay deal. Indeed Labour’s Andy Burnham, writing in this paper, suggested just this approach to resolving the issue, and he was right.
There remain, of course, problems. The likelihood is that any increased pay will come out of general NHS funding, which means there will be less money to deal with the underlying problems.
Still, this move by the Government is a hopeful development which could resolve at least the immediate possibility of further strikes, which are disastrous for patients. A pragmatic compromise on all sides is needed now.
Trouble on the Tube
There is, however, a good deal less public sympathy with striking transport unions than with the nurses; we saw as much last week when the RMT and Aslef between them brought the rail system to a standstill, and with it normal life in London. The Tube drivers’ union, Aslef, has given notice that it will be balloting its members on potential strikes. Already this Thursday the Elizabeth line, until now the new pride of the network, will be affected by a separate dispute over pay. The Aslef action is to do with pensions and working conditions rather than pay; the impact on passengers is the same.
London cannot cope with further strikes. The city must be able to move and without the Tube it cannot do so. There is a limit to the tolerance of passengers to cope with incessant disruption. The effects on every sector from hospitality to retail, will be catastrophic. Is that really what the unions want, to lose public sympathy? They have.
This evening, history will be made. This being Britain, that depends on the weather. But if all goes to plan, Cosmic Girl, a repurposed jumbo jet, will take off from Newquay Airport, bearing a rocket which will detach itself at 35,000 feet and make a break for space.
If successful, Britain would become the 10th country in the world able to launch spacecraft from its territory. That is no mean feat, especially for a nation that apparently struggles to run a train service.