The government has been accused of “snatching away” a 2.1 per cent pay rise for NHS staff that was promised prior to the pandemic, as Downing Street last night refused to give way in the escalating wages row.
With nurses preparing to strike in protest at the recommended 1 per cent pay increase, NHS Providers has challenged the government’s insistence that this is all it can afford amid the current economic climate.
But despite lavishing the NHS in praise during his Friday evening press conference – saying “I bow to nobody in my admiration for nurses” – health secretary Matt Hancock said the “consequences of the pandemic on the public finances” meant the government could not afford to pay staff more.
He also ruled out a one-off bonus payment for nurses and doctors, to be offered by the devolved administration in Scotland to the country’s frontline healthcare workers. “That isn't the approach we have chosen to take here and obviously matters of pay will go to the pay review body,” Mr Hancock said.
NHS chiefs, campaigners, representative bodies and opposition parties have all condemned the government over its proposals – which come despite previous promises made by the health secretary to “reward NHS staff for what they have done”.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which represents 450,000 health care professionals, says it has voted to set up a £35m industrial action fund to support workers through a loss of earnings, should its members decide to strike in the coming weeks.
NHS Providers said the government appeared to be “snatching planned pay rises from the pockets of deserving NHS staff so they don’t have to fund the extra costs of Covid-19”.
It pointed to guidance in the NHS Long Term Plan, in which the government assumed a pay rise of 2.1 per cent for 2021-22, not 1 per cent.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said “it is very disappointing” that Downing Street had pushed ahead with its proposal, regardless of this guidance, which was “covered by the NHS revenue settlement announced by Theresa May in June 2018”.
“This settlement was then enshrined in a formal act of parliament, the NHS Funding Act 2020,” Ms Cordery added.
The body acknowledged that these assumptions were made before the emergence of Covid-19, but insisted that the “events of the last 12 months … have significantly strengthened the case for a larger pay rise for NHS staff”.
In a video message to NHS staff released on Friday evening, Labour leader Keir Starmer said Labour would "stand with the NHS and with our key workers", arguing "for a better deal, for fairer pay".
"The NHS protected us, now it’s time to protect them," he said. "My Mum was a nurse. My sister was a nurse. My wife works in the NHS. I know what it means to work for the NHS. And if I were Prime Minister I would give them a fair pay rise that they deserve."
"This week we learned that the Conservative government is planning a real term pay cut for NHS staff. The mask has finally slipped.
"After all we’ve been through together, after clapping for our carers, this is nothing short of an insult. It sends a very strong message to the British public."
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said it was “now clear beyond doubt that Rishi Sunak has snatched away the pay rise staff were promised by ministers in the NHS long term funding plan”.
“Not only is Rishi Sunak cutting the pay of hardworking nurses he’s broken his promise to give the NHS whatever it needed to get through Covid,” he said.
The public has meanwhile been urged to join a slow handclap protest against the proposed 1 per cent pay rise.
Unison called on people to show solidarity with NHS staff by appearing on their doorsteps and balconies next Thursday at 8pm to show what they think about the “derisory” increase.
“Millions stood on doorsteps and clapped for health staff who’ve given their all. Let’s now stand up for their right to fair wages,” said Unison general secretary Christina McAnea.
Along with the RCN, Unite union — representing tens of thousands of NHS workers — has also warned about the possibility of industrial action, describing the pay announcement as a “kick in the teeth” given that inflation could reach 2 per cent by the end of 2021.
But in the face of mounting criticism, the government has refused to back down over its proposals.
“The challenge is that the nation’s finances are tight and whilst everybody else in the public sector is going to have a pay freeze, we are able to propose a pay rise for nurses at 1 per cent,” Mr Hancock said on Friday.
“I entirely appreciate that that reflects the difficult financial circumstance that the country is in.”
He said that nurses have had a 12 per cent rise in pay over the past three years. Research from the Real Centre at the Health Foundation shows that, in reality, “NHS earnings have risen by just 1.5 per cent a year since 2011-12, below inflation which averaged 1.8 per cent a year”.
“Times have been tough across the economy over the last decade but when it comes to pay NHS staff have fared much worse than others,” the foundation added.
“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.”
The prime minister's spokesperson separately claimed that the government would “consider” the recommendations raised by the NHS Pay Review Body in the spring.
“The recommended 1 per cent pay rise is what is affordable,” the spokesperson said.
Earlier on Friday, health minister Nadine Dorries raised eyebrows when she said she was “pleasantly surprised” after being asked for reaction to the government’s proposals.
“I was actually surprised because I knew that we’d frozen public-sector pay, that no-one in the public sector was receiving a pay rise, so I was pleasantly surprised that we were making an offer,” she said.