The surprise announcement that the Royal College of Nursing was calling off its planned escalation of strike action having been promised talks on pay with the government appears to indicate some shift in attitude by ministers, including PM Rishi Sunak.

The announcement – first seen by the other major unions taking strike action over NHS pay when they read press reports – came hard on the heels of a massive vote for strike action by junior doctors in the BMA and an equally strong vote by the smaller Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association.

However there are obvious fears that the government may be trying to ‘divide and rule’ by talking to the RCN (with no prior offer, but with references to “productivity enhancing reforms”), while refusing to negotiate with UNISON, Unite and GMB or with the doctors’ unions.

These concerns were intensified with the publication of the government’s tight-fisted proposal of a maximum 3.5% increase for 2023/24 in its evidence to the discredited Pay Review Body.  Far from any possibility of the PRB retrospectively taking account of the massive hike in the cost of living since January 2022, the government is making clear it wants NHS staff to face yet another year of real terms pay cuts. 

The TUC unions have hit back at these latest developments: UNISON’s General Secretary Christina McAnea has announced additional strikes, and on Twitter refused to call off action until UNISON sees “the colour of the government’s money”. She added: “Choosing to speak to one union and not others won’t stop the strikes and could make a bad situation much worse.

“The entire NHS team is absolutely determined to stand firm for better patient care. They’ll be furious at the government’s failure to invite their union in for talks. Not least because a deal just for nurses cannot possibly work, and nurses belong to other unions too.”

Unite 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 onto 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.”

GMB National Secretary Rachel Harrison said: “Todays submission to the PRB shows this Government’s true colours. The back room deal with some sections of the workforce is a tawdry example of ministers playing divide and rule politics with people’s lives.”

With performance levels still plunging since long before any strikes, 133,000 vacant posts, NHS England still dragging its heels on the belated publication of a workforce plan, and record numbers of nursing and other staff leaving the NHS – whether to find more pay elsewhere or as Sky News reports seeking less stress and a better work-life balance – it’s clear that the battle to halt the erosion of NHS pay is the battle for patient safety and to save the NHS.


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