Ministers have rebuffed an offer by nursing unions to suspend planned strikes in return for negotiations on pay, arguing that it was not possible for the government to amend awards decided by the independent pay body for NHS staff.
The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show that the health secretary would happily talk to the unions, but only about improving NHS performance and working conditions, and not about pay.
“Of course, the health secretary wants to talk to the profession about how we can make the make the job better, how we can improve the NHS performance for everybody. But ultimately pay is decided by an independent pay body,” he said.
“The point is, meetings are different from pay negotiations. Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason, to take the politics out of this kind of stuff. And we respect the judgment they have made, and we’re implementing it.”
Labour’s Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said ministers were being “irresponsible”, and were seeking to blame a crisis in the NHS this winter on striking staff, rather than seek a solution.
In what had seemed the first sign of a possible solution to the first UK nurses’ strike, beginning over Christmas, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Unison union said they could potentially accept a varied pay rise across different grades, as recently agreed in Scotland.
In a statement to the Observer, Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN, said she was prepared to “press pause” on industrial action if Barclay agreed to meet to discuss a possible deal.
But while saying Barclay’s “door is open”, Cleverly effectively closed the pathway to pausing the strikes by insisting that the pay recommendation made in July of between 4% and 5% for NHS England staff excluding doctors and dentists could not be amended.
“I think people need to understand that the negotiation on pay is done by an independent pay review body,” Cleverly said, saying the government had accepted the review body’s findings, and so the matter was closed.
Cleverly added: “He [Barclay] wants to talk to health professionals about how we drive performance in the NHS, how we make sure that it’s a job they want to do, all these things. But as I say, independent pay review bodies do what we ask them to do, which is to review pay independently of the government. We accept their recommendations.”
While the pay review bodies for NHS staff and other sectors do come up with figures, these are just recommendations, and ministers do not have to accept them.
Thousands of ambulance workers and other NHS staff across England and Wales are also due to strike on 21 December over pay.
Speaking later to the same programme, Streeting said the government’s stance was “a complete joke”.
Unions had said “very reasonably” that they would suspend strike action if there were talks, Streeting said. “It is completely unreasonable for the government not to want to negotiate, and I think they are spoiling for a fight,” he said.
“They’re quite happy to see paramedics and nurses go on strike because when the proverbial hits the fan this winter, they are going to blame nurses and paramedics for an NHS crisis which is squarely the fault of a Conservative government and 12 years of mismanagement.
“I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s reprehensible. I think it’s irresponsible. And I think patients will rightly blame the government not the unions if the strikes go ahead.”
Asked what pay rise a Labour government would give nurses, Streeting said he was “not going to pluck numbers out of thin air”.