The government shows no signs of backing down from their proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff despite fury among health unions.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended the proposed award as what the government believes it 'can afford' amid 'difficult economic challenges'.

A number of U-turns have been made over the past year, however Gavin Williamson refused to be drawn into a debate over whether the same should apply to the NHS pay recommendation.

However he did say it is 'part of a process' and independent review.

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday whether he believes nurses deserve more than a one per cent pay rise, Mr Williamson said: “What we are having to deal with is an incredibly challenging economic situation where we have put forward a proposal.

“We’ve put forward what we believe we can afford and is part of a process and that was what will be looked at.

“But really, our focus is on making sure we recover from this pandemic.”

Pressed on whether there could be a rethink on the recommendation, the Cabinet minister added: “We’ve stated that this is very much part of the process – what the government has put forward has been passed to an independent review.”

Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday, he was also asked whether a U-turn was likely.

Mr Williamson said there had “quite rightly” been “record increases” going to doctors and nurses, but that the country faced “a much more difficult economic period” after the economy had shrunk by 10 per cent during the pandemic.

Pressed on possible NHS strikes over the pay move, the Education Secretary told Sophy Ridge: “No-one wants to see industrial action and I’m certain the Royal College of Nursing wouldn’t want to see industrial action.”

It comes as the government faces fresh warnings of a staff “exodus” and a waiting list crisis

It comes as the government faces fresh warnings of a staff “exodus” and a waiting list crisis if it presses ahead with the controversial pay rise.

The Unite union, which has more than 100,000 members in the health service, said a lack of a decent increase will lead to a shortage of professionals to carry out vital operations.

Assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The NHS will be a pale shadow of the great Covid-fighting health service we know and love in five years’ time, if the insulting 1% pay recommendation is not dramatically revised upwards by ministers.

“NHS staff are exhausted after a year of tireless caring for patients during the pandemic and many are now prepared to leave the health service after a decade of pay austerity which has seen pay packets for many shrink by 19% in real terms.

“The 1% recommendation could be the last straw for many dedicated staff.

“The NHS already has an estimated 100,000 vacancies, including 40,000 nursing posts – and a massive backlog of non-Covid procedures, such as cancer treatments.

“The Tories’ tight-fisted policy on NHS pay since 2010 will have a poisonous sting in the tail in the years to come and lead to an exodus of experienced staff that the NHS can ill-afford to lose."

Meanwhile, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said it was “reprehensible” for ministers not to recommend putting NHS pay up by more than one per cent.

The senior Labour politician told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “The government, to be clear, is not planning a pay rise.

“That is a real-terms pay cut because it doesn’t keep up with inflation and for nurses to be offered a pay cut is just reprehensible in our view."

The Wigan MP continued: "In the NHS long-term plan, the government budgeted for a 2.1% pay rise – that is what nurses were promised and last year they legislated for that in order to give nurses a cast-iron guarantee that after years of seeing their real-terms pay fall, that the government would finally reverse that decision and start to see their pay increase.

“We think they ought to go into these negotiations at a bare minimum of honouring that promise of a 2.1% (increase) and then consider what more they can offer to our NHS staff who have done so much to put their families and themselves at risk every day going into work – some of them have died.”