The government is facing a furious backlash after calling for an NHS staff pay rise in England to be restricted to just one per cent.

Ministers have defended the proposal at a time when the economy is under 'huge pressure' as a result of the pandemic.

But health service unions have condemned the proposed award as a 'kick in the teeth' and an 'insult' for staff who had given 'absolutely everything' over the past year to keep the public safe.

Appearing on BBC Question Time on Thursday night, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said while the performance of the NHS had been “first-class”, many people in the private sector faced losing their jobs.

“No one is doubting the NHS has been absolutely first class in this whole pandemic. What I am suggesting is that the whole economy has been under huge pressure,” he said.

“When I look at people in the hospitality sector, in aviation, in retail, many of them are very, very worried they won’t even be in a job in two or three months.”

Health minister Nadine Norris told Sky News that the one per cent offer "is the most we think we can afford."

It follows Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement in last year’s spending review of a pay freeze for most public sector workers outside the NHS.

In its submission, the pay review bodies for NHS staff and for doctors and dentists, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the NHS budget was based on a headline pay rise of one per cent.

It suggested any award above that would require cuts to services with a “re-prioritisation” of funding within the service.

It said they needed to strike “the right balance between pay and staff numbers through systems of reward that are affordable and fit for purpose”.

Many have said it's a 'kick in the teeth'

Royal College of Nursing general secretary, Dame Donna Kinnair, says it would amount to an increase of only £3.50 a week in take-home pay for an experienced nurse.

“This is pitiful and bitterly disappointing. The government is dangerously out of touch with nursing staff, NHS workers, and the public,” she said.

“Nobody would think that is fair in the middle of a pandemic and it will do nothing to prevent the exodus from nursing.”

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who chairs the British Medical Association council, said it came as a “kick in the teeth” after a decade in which doctors had experienced real terms pay cuts of up to 30 per cent.

“This is a total dereliction of the government’s moral duty and obligation to a workforce that is keeping the NHS on its feet and patients alive,” he said.

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: “A one per cent pay rise is the worst kind of insult the government could give health workers who’ve given their absolute everything over the past year.

“The public will be horrified. Staff will think it’s some kind of joke.”

A number of Labour politicians have also criticised the proposal, including Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth, who said: “A pay cut for NHS staff is the ultimate kick in the teeth to our NHS heroes who have done so much to keep us safe over the past year.”

Thousands of NHS workers have also taken to Twitter to express their dismay, including Good Morning Britain's Dr Amir Khan.

He tweeted: "Nurses: the backbone of the NHS, the people who have been putting their lives on the line to keep us alive during the pandemic, some of the hardest working, most caring people I know. This is a disgrace".

A government spokesman said ministers would “carefully” consider the recommendations of the pay review bodies when they report in late spring.

“Over one million NHS staff continue to benefit from multi-year pay deals agreed with trade unions, which have delivered a pay rise of over 12% for newly-qualified nurses and will increase junior doctors’ pay scales by 8.2%,” the spokesman said.

“Pay rises in the rest of the public sector will be paused this year due to the challenging economic environment, but we will continue to provide pay rises for NHS workers, on top of a £513 million investment in professional development and increased recruitment.”