Boris Johnson is facing a growing backlash against his proposed 1 per cent pay increase for NHS staff — including the threat of strikes by nurses — in the first test of the prime minister’s commitment to post-pandemic fiscal discipline.
UK nurses’ leaders said they were preparing for possible industrial action after denouncing what they called a “pitiful” pay rise for workers including staff fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The row erupted on Thursday after the government recommended the figure for nurses and other health service workers in its submission to the independent body that advises on NHS pay. The rate of increase could mean pay for clinical professionals dropping in real terms.
The governing council of the Royal College of Nursing on Friday held an emergency meeting, voting unanimously to form a £35m “industrial action fund”, providing support and compensation for loss of earnings if members went on strike.
“The RCN will create the UK’s largest union strike fund overnight,” the body said, adding that the next steps would be decided “in conjunction with our members”.
Later, in a rare joint initiative, the RCN, BMA, the Royal College of Midwives and Unison published an open letter to the chancellor Rishi Sunak, asking him to reconsider.
“Our members are the doctors, nurses, midwives, porters, healthcare assistants and more, already exhausted and distressed, who are also expected to go on caring for the millions of patients on waiting lists, coping with a huge backlog of treatment as well as caring for those with Covid-19,” they wrote.
The clashes with frontline staff came just two days after Sunak used his Budget to promise to restore discipline to the public finances after an unprecedented £407bn spending spree to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the prime minister under growing pressure, health secretary Matt Hancock refused to back down on Friday, insisting that the NHS workers had not been included in a wider public sector pay freeze.
“These have been challenging times, and one of the challenges that we face as a country is in terms of the financial consequences of the pandemic,” Hancock said at a Downing Street press conference. “We have proposed what we think is affordable to make sure that in the NHS people do get a pay rise.”
Hancock signalled there was no current plan to copy the Scottish government, which has given its health workers a one-off payment to reflect their hard work during the pandemic.
But some Tory MPs are worried Number 10 may be on the wrong side of public opinion. “When I heard the news my heart sank,” said one. “I was really surprised they weren’t more generous in the circumstances.”
The opposition Labour party said: “On multiple occasions Matt Hancock has publicly declared NHS staff should receive the pay they deserve, regularly describing healthcare workers as ‘heroes’.”
In its submission to the NHS pay review body, the department for health and social care said Covid-19 had “placed a huge strain on both public and NHS finances. The economic outlook for 2021/22 remains uncertain and pay awards must be both fair and affordable”.
It had “announced a pause in public sector pay rises for all workforces, with an exception for employees with basic full-time equivalent salaries of £24,000 or under and for the NHS”.
In settling the DHSC and NHS budgets, “the government assumed a headline pay award of 1 per cent for NHS staff. Anything higher would require re-prioritisation,” it added.
A Downing Street spokesman said there had been a pay rise of 12 per cent for newly-qualified nurses over the past three years and 8 per cent for junior doctors.
But Anita Charlesworth, head of research for the Health Foundation, a charity, said governments had repeatedly held down NHS pay as health funding failed to keep pace with demand.
Over the past decade NHS staff had fared much worse than other workers, she said. “ONS weekly earnings data show average earnings across all sectors in the economy were 3 per cent higher in 2019/20 than in 2011/12, compared with a 2 per cent decrease for NHS staff,” Charlesworth added.
The government said it would consider the recommendations from the pay review bodies when they were received in the spring.
NHS Providers, which represents healthcare organisations across the country, pushed back at the government’s insistence that the proposed 1 per cent rise was all that was affordable.
In a long-term plan for the health service published at the start of 2019, the government had assumed an NHS pay rise of 2.1 per cent in 2021/22, covered by the NHS revenue settlement announced by then-premier Theresa May the previous June and enshrined in law, Saffron Cordery, the organisation’s deputy chief executive, said. Cordery described the development as “very disappointing”.