As the NHS prepares for a major wave of strike action, England's Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, insisted he was "engaging" with health unions over pay demands.
He told MPs that several meetings had taken place and that "discussions have been constructive – and that's very much the tenure in which we are engaging with trade union colleagues".
Giving evidence to the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Mr Barclay acknowledged that health workers were enduring economic fallout from the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising prices, and the war in Ukraine. For those reasons the Government was keen to work with unions on future pay settlements "so that we can reflect inflation alongside the other Treasury equities which other colleagues in government will want to reinforce in terms of the wider affordability of any pay deal, given the size of the NHS workforce".
The Committee chair, Steve Brine, said the next pay review might "move the dial on this industrial action" but that recommendation and implementation were 3-8 months away.
Government Missed Deadline for Next Pay Review
In an earlier Committee session on Tuesday, Philippa Hird, chair of the NHS Pay Review Body, confirmed that the Government had missed a deadline of 11 January for submitting that evidence. She told MPs that "a few days before that, I wrote to the minister just to reiterate the importance of the deadline, and he wrote back straightaway confirming that he understood the importance of the deadline".
Mr Brine said he was "astonished" by her revelation, particularly as the Government had spent "all the holiday season … standing behind the pay review body, and then not to respond to it by the date that you asked for". Ms Hird said: "I'm expecting to get evidence from the Government. We have had Treasury evidence, so it's not that we have no Government evidence – we just don't have evidence from the Department of Health." She said that in the meantime, they were "carrying on with our work" and still expected to produce a report by 23 April.
During the later session, Mr Barclay confirmed that he expected to make his submission sometime in February.
Strikes Over Pay Loom
The Health Secretary was repeatedly pressed on the issue of pay for health workers, including by Taiwo Owatemi (Labour, Coventry North West), who read out cost of living expenses that might face a typical newly qualified nurse earning £2,254 a month. She said that after deductions for tax, bills, food, the cost of transport and paying to park at work, that nurse might be out of pocket by £55.71 at the end of the month. "That's the reality for many NHS staff," she insisted.
Mr Barclay's appearance before the Committee came as the NHS prepared for the biggest ever industrial action in its history. Members of the Royal College of Nursing will renew their industrial action with another round of strikes due to take place on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 February. They will be joined by ambulance workers on 6 February.
Junior doctors in England are currently being balloted on whether to take strike action in their dispute over pay, while consultants in England are to be asked whether they would endorse a strike ballot in their dispute over pay and pension taxation.