Rishi Sunak sparks ‘a bit of optimism’ on NHS pay ahead of endgame talks

Rishi Sunak sparked “a modicum of optimism” about a possible pay increase for NHS workers as the prime minister first signaled a willingness to tackle higher pay demands.

The prime minister’s remarks about being “satisfied” with discussions on improving NHS pay come ahead of Steve Barclay’s crucial meeting with unions, whose leaders will demand that the health secretary get involved in the ongoing pay dispute.

Some union leaders expressed cautious optimism after Mr Sunak said the government was “open” to discussing salaries for nurses and ambulance staff.

Unison’s health chief Sara Gorton said: “Health professionals will hope the PM’s comments mean talks [on Monday] may go beyond hearing only evidence from the salary review body for the year from April.” The 2023-24 salary review process is due to start in April.

The head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Pat Cullen, said Mr Sunak’s comments had given “a modicum of optimism” that strikes due to start in mid-January could still be avoided, and his comments represented a “small change”.

However, Unite’s Sharon Graham said Sunak had been “misleading” the British public about “so-called pay talks”. She insisted that until the Prime Minister accepted “the need to make real progress on the current pay claim, there will still be strikes in the NHS this winter”.

The GMB union threw cold water on the idea of ​​a breakthrough, saying it was clear Mr Barclay did not want to get involved in negotiations on Monday. “Just 45 minutes to talk is an insult,” a union spokesman said. “The government is not serious about resolving this dispute and is practicing ticking the boxes.”

Mr Sunak refused to categorically rule out a re-view of this year’s nurse and ambulance staff pay deal ahead of the talks during an interview with the BBC Sunday with Laura Kuenssbergsaying he wanted a “reasonable, fair, two-way conversation about pay.”

Asked by a presenter whether the talks could include a “here and now” pay dispute, the prime minister replied: “We want these talks to be.”

But Mr Sunak also added: “We are about to start a new payroll round for this year [2023-4]. Before this process begins, the government will be happy to sit down with the unions and talk about wages, making sure they understand where we come from.”

A source close to the health minister said Independent that he would not discuss the current pay dispute on Monday. “Steve wants to look forward to the coming year. This is an opportunity for unions to determine what they believe is available under the current circumstances.”

In the opinion article for TelegraphBarclay has suggested striking NHS workers could get a better pay deal from April – if union leaders accept “productivity and efficiency” reforms in return.

Thousands of young doctors in England will start voting on Monday on whether to go on strike for three days in March. Nurses are already scheduled to go on strike on January 18 and 19, and ambulance staff will leave on January 11 and 23.

Final talks with union bosses come as Mr Barclay announces an extra £200m to buy thousands of extra beds in care homes to ease current pressure on hospitals.

The extra money for integrated care boards, on top of the £500m discharge fund announced in an autumn statement, is intended to free up hospital beds so people can be taken from A&E to wards more quickly.

Mr Sunak has come under fire again for dealing with the NHS’s current problems after refusing to accept the health service’s crisis, despite admitting it is under “enormous pressure”.

In an awkward exchange, the prime minister three times refused to tell Mrs Kuenssberg whether she was using a private GP – claiming the problem was “distraction from the things that really matter”.

Ms Cullen said Mr Sunak should “clarify himself” on the matter. “He’s accountable to society – and when you’re accountable to society you have to be honest with him,” she told the BBC.

Mr Sunak said he was “confident” that steps could be taken to discharge patients more quickly. He also said he was confident that in just a few months the government would “virtually eliminate” more than 18 months of waiting time.

But Professor Clive Kay, chief executive of King’s College Hospital, when asked if it sounded as if the Prime Minister understood the seriousness of the crisis facing the NHS, said: “No, to be honest.”

Professor Kay told the BBC: “I don’t think I’ve heard [the PM] to grasp that this is a really difficult situation … The suggestion that it will be a quick fix, a sticky, is not reality.”

Labor leader Starmer warned that the NHS was “not only on its knees but on its head” as he criticized the government’s waiting list records and lack of cooperation with trade unions on ongoing pay demands ahead of strikes. “It’s a shame for the government that this has happened.”

Also on Monday, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan will meet teachers’ unions to discuss a pay review next year ahead of potential strikes to hit schools. The results of the strike vote are due to be released this week by NASUWT, the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper is expected to meet with the leaders of the RMT and Aslef rail unions on Monday to discuss the process of resolving a pay dispute with employers.

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