Rishi Sunak on Monday morning hailed talks with union leaders as a “good, positive sign” and did not rule out a one-off payment to nurses to end their strikes.
However, he also stressed that pay deals had to be “affordable” and that “rooting out inflation” was still vital.
With Britain in the grip of a wave of walkouts, Health Secretary Steve Barclay was meeting union leaders to try to break the deadlock over pay rises for nurses and paramedics.
Rail minister Huw Merriman was also set to hold discussions with the RMT and train drivers’ union Aslef, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan due to have talks with teacher unions.
Speaking ahead of the meetings, the Prime Minister said: “The talks are happening. That’s a good, positive sign.” But he added that people needed to “recognise that when it comes to pay we do need to be talking about things that are affordable ultimately for the country, that are responsible when it comes to tacking inflation which, ultimately, is the root cause of the challenges people are seeing”.
He declined to be drawn on reports of a one-off payment to nurses for this year. Mr Barclay was said to be “looking forward to having an honest and constructive conversation with union representatives ahead of the pay review process for the coming financial year”.
Nurses are demanding a pay rise, now of about 10 per cent, for this year. Patricia Marquis, director for England at the Royal College of Nursing, put the likelihood of strikes on January 18 and 19 being called off at less than 50 per cent.
“Today’s conversation is with all of the unions, and, as far as we can tell, is actually about pay going forward — so the year ’23/24, not the current year, which is the dispute that we’re in,” she added.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The most important thing for passengers, businesses and the future of our rail industry, is for unions to put an end to these disruptive strikes.
“The rail minister will approach these latest talks as we have done since the start of this damaging industrial action — by working to facilitate reasoned, constructive discussions aimed at finding a swift resolution.”
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak was urged by a senior A&E doctor to accept that the NHS is in “crisis”.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister declined several times on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg to acknowledge that the health service was in such a dire state, with casualty departments overwhelmed and ambulances queuing outside many hospitals.
Instead, he said: “The NHS is undeniably under enormous pressure.”
But Dr Rob Galloway, an emergency medicine consultant at the Brighton and Sussex University NHS Trust, tweeted: “My response to Rishi’s ‘response’ to the NHS crisis.
“The first step is to accept it’s not just busy or under pressure but it’s a crisis.”
The health service is struggling to cope with more than seven million people on waiting lists, a Covid and flu “twindemic”, as well as staffing shortages and strikes.
Ministers will spend up to £200 million buying thousands of extra care home beds to speed up the discharge of hospital patients and reduce the strain on hospitals.
Mr Barclay also announced £50 million additional capital funding for hospitals as the Government comes under pressure to alleviate the crisis.
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said talks about pay are a “major step forward” and the union has “hope” the dispute can be resolved. Speaking outside the Department of Health and Social Care ahead of her meeting with Mr Barclay, she added: “We’ll exhaust every possible opportunity to resolve this dispute.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said ministers “have to put more money on the table now, and a one-off payment may sound superficially attractive but that brings all sorts of problems with it.
“We want a pay rise which is incorporated into pay in a proper way.”