Voices: Pay hikes for NHS staff are unaffordable – and will cut patient care

If we provide unaffordable pay rises to NHS staff, we will take billions of pounds away from where we need it most (PA)
If we provide unaffordable pay rises to NHS staff, we will take billions of pounds away from where we need it most (PA)

This winter, health services across Europe are under intense pressure. We are feeling the strain in every part of the UK, too. We’ve seen the highest number of patients admitted to hospital with flu for a decade. This comes on top of continuing Covid admissions, and the treatment backlog left by the pandemic.

The nurses’ strike on Wednesday and the further walkouts for next month announced by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) on Monday will pile on further pressure at this challenging time. Around 30,000 procedures or outpatient appointments were postponed as a result of nurse strikes on 15 and 20 December, so I am disappointed that patients face disruption again.

Despite appearances in this dispute, there is much common ground. Everyone in healthcare wants the best for patients. Ministers want to work with union leaders to improve the NHS and deliver better care. Last week I announced £200m to block book beds in care homes to speed up the discharge of patients who are medically fit to leave hospital. That sum comes on top of £500m unveiled in the chancellor’s autumn statement.

The cash will mean more patients can convalesce and get the care they need away from hospital wards. Equally, it will help NHS staff concentrate on those who need hospital care. I also announced £50m for new discharge lounges and ambulance hubs to ease the congestion in emergency rooms. I understand the frustration of ambulance crews who too often find themselves stuck at the front of hospitals because of long delays before they can drop off patients and get back out on the road.

With fewer than three months left of this financial year, it is time to look ahead, not back. I recognise the cost of living pressures on NHS staff and I know how hard they work. But if we provide unaffordable pay rises to NHS staff, we will take billions of pounds away from where we need it most. Unaffordable pay hikes will mean cutting patient care and stoking the inflation that would make us all poorer.

I know we can find a fair way to resolve this. I want to continue the constructive dialogue with union leaders about how to make the NHS a better place to work and deliver better care for patients. I want to work with the unions to identify areas where the NHS can become more efficient. That could both relieve administrative burdens on staff and unlock additional funding to top up affordable pay rises for the coming financial year.

I also want to agree minimum staffing levels during industrial action with unions to ensure patients are always protected. We will keep talking to find common ground and seek to put these disruptive strikes behind us.