Rishi Sunak ‘considers one-off payment for NHS staff to end strikes’

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Rishi Sunak’s government is said to be considering a “one-off payment for nurses and ambulance workers to end strikes causing major disruption in the NHS.

The prime minister sparked a “chink of optimism” about a possible pay boost for health workers after he signalled a willingness to address higher pay demands for the first time.

Health secretary Steve Barclay is expected to focus on the next year’s pay review process – rather than the current pay dispute – when he meets heath union leaders on Monday morning.

But ministers are reportedly looking at a “one-off” payment to nurses and ambulance, possibly in the form of cost of living payment, to prevent looming strikes, according to The Guardian.

Health workers in Wales have been offered such a payment to avoid more strike action. But No 10 and the Treasury have been accused of blocking deal when the idea was previously floated.

Despite the government’s insistence that Monday’s meeting is focused on the 2023-24 pay review, some union leaders expressed cautious optimism after Mr Sunak said he was “open” to discussing health workers’ pay.

Asked on BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuennseberg whether talks could include the 2022-23 pay dispute “right here, right now”, the prime minister replied: “We want to have these conversations.”

But Mr Sunak also added: “We’re about to start a new pay settlement round for this year [2023-4]. 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.”

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief Pat Cullen said Mr Sunak’s comments offered a “chink of optimism” that strikes set to start in mid-January could still be avoided, with his comments representing a “little shift”.

Ahead of talks with Mr Barclay, RCN director for England Patricia Marquis told Sky News on Monday that there was less than 50-50 chance of avoid strikes from mid-January.

“If there are chinks of hope, if there are further meetings, then I and my colleagues will all maintain optimism that we can get a resolution,” she said.

Unite’s Sharon Graham said Mr Sunak was “misleading” the British public about the “so-called pay talks”, while the GMB union also poured cold water on the idea of a breakthrough, describing Monday’s meeting as a “box ticking exercise”.

Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen

Thousands of junior doctors in England will start voting on Monday on whether to strike for three days in March. Nurses are already set to strike on 18 and 19 January, while ambulance staff will walk out on 11 and 23 January.

Mr Barclay hinted that striking NHS staff could be offered a better pay deal from April – if union leaders accept “productivity and efficiency” reforms in return.

Asked about the idea of a pay rise in return for efficiency reforms, Ms Marquis said: “That, for me, makes me very, very worried – it shows a level of misunderstanding of the situation the NHS and nursing is in at the moment.”

The RCN director added: “Of course, there’s always some sort of efficiencies that can be made but it really does sound like what they’re trying to do is get … the NHS to fund its own pay award and we don’t think that’s possible.”

On Monday the health secretary is also set to announce an extra £200m in funding to buy up thousands of extra care home beds in a bid to ease current pressure on hospitals.

The extra money for integrated care boards is aiming at freeing up hospital beds so people can be admitted more quickly from A&E to wards.

A further £50m will go in additional capital funding for hospitals to expand discharge lounges and ambulance hubs to help tackle queues of paramedics waiting to hand over patients.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting criticised the plans as “yet another sticking plaster”, rather than an attempt to fix the “buckling” health and care services. He said Labour would instead “tackle the root cause of the crisis” by recruiting and retaining more carers.

Mr Streeting called strikes a “cry for help” by NHS workers as he warned that staff are feeling a “real sense of moral injury”.

The Labour frontbencher told BBC Breakfast that the government needed to negotiate a “fair” deal with healthcare workers. “I think they’re speaking for the wider NHS workforce,” he added on striking staff.

Source: independent.co.uk