Nursing officials are set to meet with the Government to kick off "intensive talks" to end strikes amid a bitter dispute over pay. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has agreed to pause major strike action while engaging in talks over "pay, terms and conditions, and productivity enhancing reforms" with Health Secretary Steve Barclay today.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said on Tuesday evening she is "confident" about reaching an agreement over pay for nurses.
She told Sky News Tuesday: "Very pleased to say that the Government has agreed to enter into a period of intensive talks with the Royal College of Nursing.
"I’m confident that we will be able to reach agreement about a fair pay deal for our nursing staff.
"The finer detail has to be worked out but I'm very assured by the Prime Minister's intervention, and we certainly will, as we've always said, put our plans on the table.
"They can put their plans on the table but I’m confident that we will come out with a fair pay settlement for our nursing staff."
Ms Cullen added: "I’m entering this in good faith, I think this is a significant step forward, every nurse in England today can breathe a sigh of relief and, more importantly, our patients can.
"So, let's get round the table tomorrow [Wednesday], I’m very confident with the move from Government and certainly we will do our very best to make sure that a fair pay deal is obtained for all of our nursing."
Expanded Strike Paused
The next industrial action pencilled in for nurses was on March 1 when they had planned to strike continuously for 48 hours. The action would have also included nursing staff from emergency departments, intensive care units, cancer care, and other services that were previously exempted.
A joint statement from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Royal College of Nursing said: "The Government and Royal College of Nursing have agreed to enter a process of intensive talks.
"Both sides are committed to finding a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role that nurses and nursing play in the National Health Service and the wider economic pressures facing the United Kingdom and the Prime Minister's priority to halve inflation.
"The talks will focus on pay, terms and conditions, and productivity enhancing reforms.
"The Health Secretary will meet with the Royal College of Nursing on Wednesday to begin talks.
"The Royal College of Nursing will pause strike action during these talks."
It comes as the department submitted its evidence to the NHS Pay Review Body for the 2023/24 financial year. Officials said a 3.5% pay rise for staff would be affordable for the UK Government.
Unite said the Government's proposal on NHS pay will accelerate a spring of strikes across the health service.
General secretary Sharon Graham said: "This has to be some sort of sick joke. On the day when figures show that the country can well afford to meet NHS workers' pay expectations, the Government is trying to force another year of wage cuts into the NHS.
"This will only accelerate a spring of NHS strikes. This Government either does not care about our NHS, its staff and patients, or has a more sinister future in mind for the service."
However, the Financial Times has reported the Government is looking at a possible 5% pay rise for public sector workers after the Treasury was given an unexpected £30 bn windfall. The Treasury suggested in a private memo, seen by the FT, public sector awards of up to 5% for 2023-24 would carry a "low risk" of setting a benchmark for protracted high private sector pay growth.
BMA Says 3.5% is 'Insulting' for Junior Doctors
Elsewhere, the British Medical Association (BMA) is meeting with Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials on Wednesday after junior doctor members had voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking industrial action. It is understood that Mr Barclay will not be in attendance.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Dr Rob Laurenson, co-chair of the BMA's Junior Doctors' committee, said: "For a meeting of this significance to go ahead without the minister in charge shows how little attention this Government continues to afford to doctors and their patients."
Responding to the Government's recommendation to the pay review bodies of a 3.5% pay raise for NHS staff, including some doctors, the BMA Chair of Council, Professor Philip Banfield said: "With inflation running at over 10% and some NHS staff having to make use of food banks, for the Government to recommend such a low future pay offer and nothing on back pay, is far more than just insulting.
"It not only fails to take account of the years of pay erosion – with some doctors having experienced real terms pay cuts of up to 35% – but such a paltry uplift may mean many NHS workers simply won't be able to afford to stay in the job. Countries like Australia are actively recruiting our doctors and other healthcare workers for jobs with far better pay, terms, and conditions and a pay offer like this will do nothing to stem that outflow.
"The offer is also significantly lower than regular pay growth in the private sector which most recent data, shows to be at 6.7%. Now, more than ever, we need to see the pay review bodies show themselves to be truly independent of Government interference and to recommend an appropriate deal that takes account of pay erosion as well as future pay.
"The BMA meets with officials from the Department of Health today and if Ministers truly want to avert strike action by tens of thousands of junior doctors in England, next month there need to be meaningful negotiations and the prospect of a realistic pay offer on the table; 3.5% is nowhere near that."
Commenting on the announcement of Government pay talks with some unions, TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: "At long last it appears the Government is edging towards the table after months of dragging their feet.
"It has always been down to them to resolve these disputes.
"But we won’t accept the Conservatives taking a pick’n’mix approach to pay or playing divide and rule with public-sector workers.
"They must confirm they will seriously negotiate with every union in dispute, without preconditions. Everyone who keeps our public services running deserves a fair deal on pay."
This article contains information from PA Media