Health unions made a dramatic offer on Saturday night to halt a wave of planned strikes that threaten to cripple the NHS over Christmas and New Year if ministers agree to open serious talks on pay.
The moves by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the country’s biggest union, Unison, are the first signs of flexibility on either side in a dispute that has been deadlocked for weeks.
The Observer was told that rather than insisting on increases in line with inflation or, for nurses, exceeding it by 5%, the unions would seriously consider agreements similar to those which have already led to the suspension of strikes in Scotland.
There, the threat of widespread NHS walkouts was lifted after the Holyrood government offered health care workers between 5% and 11%, depending on rank.
In a statement to ObserverPat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, which is due to strike 100,000 of its members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday, said she was ready to ‘take a break’ on industrial action whether Health Secretary Steve Barclay has agreed to meet to strike a deal.
The unions say Barclay has only held two meetings with them in recent weeks and declined on both occasions to discuss wages. Instead, they say, he steered the discussion towards other issues concerning working conditions. The MRC said it had had no communication with Barclay’s department for a week.
“Negotiate with the nurses and avoid this strike,” Cullen said. “Five times my offer to negotiate has been refused.” She added: ‘I will pause on this when the Health Secretary says he will seriously negotiate over our dispute this year. This means that each of us gives ground. He gains nothing by ignoring NHS workforce representatives. The public blames the government for this disastrous situation, and it must face it. A quick change in tactics will pay off for everyone involved.
Strikes in Scotland have been suspended after the Holyrood government made offers of between 5% and 11% depending on rank. Unison recommended acceptance of the offer north of the border to its members, while the RCN took a neutral stance and also put the new offer to the members on a ballot.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said a Scottish-style offer to NHS workers south of the border “may well” mean the lifting of strike threats. “Rather than scare the public about the consequences of strikes, the health secretary should come up with real plans to improve wages,” she said.
“Sitting down with health unions and improving the wage offer has suspended strikes across Scotland. If Steve Barclay were to mirror Holyrood’s approach and commit to raising wages this year, the threat of strikes before Christmas may well be lifted. But the ball is firmly seated in the government’s court. Ministers know what they need to do to avoid disruption later this month. »
The two planned NHS-wide shutdowns by nurses are set to be followed by a series of strikes by ambulance service staff belonging to Unison, Unite and GMB unions on December 21 and GMB members only on December 28 .
NHS bosses are privately alarmed by the impact of ambulance staff walkouts, given that patients are already injured and in some cases dying, as a direct result of ambulance response times to 999 calls, which are already the worst ever recorded.
On Monday, the results of ballots for a strike involving NHS midwives and physiotherapists will be released as action among healthcare workers threatens to spread.
See you on Friday Guardian, Cullen described Barclay as a “tyrant” for his refusal to negotiate. But she also gave a clear indication that the MRC would drop its months-long pursuit of a 5% pay rise above inflation if the Health Secretary dropped his insistence that the government could not not afford to improve its offer by a raise of at least £1,400 per head for 2022/23.
If wage talks have taken place, “negotiations will inevitably involve give and take on either side. I won’t dig if they don’t dig. But they have to come to the table with me,” Cullen said. She reiterated her willingness to review the union’s wage demand if Barclay enters into wage talks.
The government’s offer is worth around 4% for more than a million – all but doctors and dentists – whose terms and conditions are set under the long-running UK-wide Agenda For Change deal . However, if ministers were to increase this, they would have to find a potentially large sum of extra money to secure a deal, as every extra 1% on NHS staff costs around £700million.
Labor has signaled in recent days that it backs a more generous deal for NHS workers and accused the government of ‘deliberately spoiling a fight’ with unions by accusing them of ‘holding Christmas to ransom’. The unions, however, are determined to show that they are not the rigid ones and are only fighting for a rise in wages close to inflation, after years of seeing wages indexed.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.