Nurses’ leaders have welcomed remarks by Rishi Sunak, who said that he did not rule out reopening their pay deal this year when ministers meet health workers’ representatives on Monday.
The meeting is part of a wider series of talks with public sector union leaders as the government struggles to curtail Britain’s wave of industrial action.
The prime minister told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme that the government’s “door has always been open” to talks with the unions, adding that ministers were willing to “talk about things that are reasonable, that are affordable and responsible for the country”.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said Sunak’s openness to talks offered a “chink of optimism” that a deal could be reached.
Challenged specifically on whether he was willing to reopen the current 2022/23 pay settlement, Sunak replied: “The government has always been clear that it’s happy to talk about pay that is responsible, that’s affordable for the country.
“But we are about to start a new pay settlement round for this year,” he continued. “We’re about to start that independent process, and before that process starts the government is keen to sit down with the unions and talk about pay and make sure they understand where we’re coming from.”
The apparent softening in tone by Sunak came after he said at the end of last week that the talks with unions on Monday were about having a “grown-up conversation” on pay settlements for the financial year starting in April. In contrast, union leaders insisted they wanted to focus on higher pay for their members in the current financial year.
Cullen told the BBC: “Well, the prime minister talked about coming to the table, now that’s a move for me because I have said, let’s meet halfway . . . So if that table is now available, I will be there on behalf of the over 300,000 members that participated in this ballot. But it must be about addressing pay for 2022/23.”
Nurses are set to receive a rise of 4.75 per cent this year with members of the RCN due to stage a second series of strikes in England on January 18 and 19. Ambulance workers, who are members of the GMB and Unison, are set to walk out on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association will this week start balloting junior doctors over possible strike action. The doctors’ union also warned on Sunday that it would discuss holding a ballot for industrial action by NHS consultants in the coming weeks.
In an effort to help ease the pressure on the NHS this winter, the government is expected to announce emergency funding aimed at speeding up the transfer of patients out of hospital into care homes, in a move first reported by the Sunday Times newspaper.
Ambulance wait times for admitting patients to hospital have hit a new record due to a bed shortage. More than nine out of 10 hospital beds are occupied, with almost 13,000 taken by people who are medically fit to be discharged, but remain in hospital because of a shortage of available places in the social care sector.
Ministers will also hold talks with rail and education union representatives on Monday with the results of ballots of teachers in England due to close this week and the prospect of strikes starting by the end of January.
After months of industrial action on the railways, industry bosses are optimistic ahead of the meeting between rail minister Huw Merriman and the unions that a settlement could be reached.
Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT, the biggest rail union, called on the government and industry to table new proposals to help smooth the path to a deal. “I go in optimistic . . . but how well founded that optimism is [is] something I need to have proven to me,” he told the Financial Times.
“We will be looking for an improvement in the package . . . if we feel we have an improvement that’s worth considering we will put it to a referendum.”