Health unions made a dramatic offer on Saturday night to suspend a wave of planned strikes that threatens to cripple the NHS over Christmas and the new year if ministers agree to open serious discussions over pay.
The moves by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the country’s biggest union, Unison, are the first signs of flexibility by either side in a dispute that has been deadlocked for weeks.
The Observer has been told that rather than insisting on rises that match inflation or, for nurses, exceed it by 5%, the unions would seriously consider deals similar to those that have already led to strikes being suspended in Scotland.
There, the threat of widespread walkouts across the NHS has been lifted after health service workers were offered between 5% and 11% by the government in Holyrood, depending on grades.
In a statement to the Observer, Pat Cullen, general secretary of the RCN, which is due to pull 100,000 of its members out on strike on Thursday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said she was prepared to “press pause” on industrial action if the health secretary, Steve Barclay, agreed to meet to thrash out a deal.
The unions say Barclay has held only two meetings with them in the last few weeks, and on both occasions refused to discuss pay. Instead, they say, he has turned the discussion to other matters about working conditions. The RCN said it has had no communication with Barclay’s department for a week.
“Negotiate with nurses and avoid this strike,” Cullen said. “Five times my offer to negotiate has been turned down.” She added: “I will press pause on it when the health secretary says he will negotiate seriously on our dispute this year. That means each of us giving some ground. He gains nothing by ignoring the representatives of the NHS workforce. The public blames government for this dire situation, and they have to face up to it. A swift change of tactics will pay off for all concerned.”
Strikes in Scotland have been suspended after Unison recommended acceptance of the offer north of the border to its members, while the RCN has taken a neutral position and also put the new offer to the membership in a ballot.
Unison’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, said a Scotland-style offer to NHS workers south of the border “could well” mean the strike threats being lifted. “Rather than scare the public about the consequences of strikes, the health secretary should table genuine plans for improving wages,” she said.
“Sitting down with health unions and improving the pay on offer has put strikes on hold across Scotland. If Steve Barclay were to mirror Holyrood’s approach and commit to boosting wages this year, the threat of pre-Christmas strikes could well be lifted. But the ball sits firmly in the government’s court. Ministers know what they must do to prevent disruption later this month.”
The two planned NHS-wide stoppages by nurses are due to be followed by a series of strikes by ambulance service staff who belong to Unison, Unite and the GMB unions on 21 December and by GMB members only on 28 December.
NHS bosses are privately alarmed at the impact of walkouts by ambulance staff, given that patients are already being harmed, and in some cases dying, as a direct result of ambulance response times to 999 calls, which are already the worst on record.
On Monday, the results of ballots for strike action involving NHS midwives and physiotherapists will be made public as action among health workers threatens to spread.
In Friday’s Guardian, Cullen described Barclay as a “bullyboy” over his refusal to negotiate. But she also gave a clear indication that the RCN would drop its months-long pursuit of a pay rise worth 5% above inflation if the health secretary abandoned his insistence the government cannot afford to improve on its offer of an uplift of at least £1,400 a head for 2022-23.
If talks about pay did happen, “negotiations will inevitably involve some give and take on each side. I won’t dig in if they won’t dig in. But they need to come to the table with me,” said Cullen. She repeated her willingness to revisit the union’s pay claim if Barclay does enter into talks.
The government’s offer is worth about 4% to more than 1 million workers – everyone bar doctors and dentists – whose terms and conditions are set under the longstanding Agenda for Change UK-wide agreement. However, if ministers were to increase that, they would have to find a potentially significant amount of extra money to ensure a deal, as each 1% extra on NHS staff pay costs about £700m.
Labour has indicated over recent days that it backs a more generous deal for NHS workers and accused the government of “spoiling for a fight” with the unions by denouncing them for “holding Christmas to ransom”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS workers do an incredible job caring for our loved ones and it is disappointing some will be taking industrial action, ahead of a difficult winter. Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN and Unison, on how we can make the NHS a better place to work – and have been clear the door remains open for further talks.”