Tory chairman’s ‘NHS strikes help Putin’ claim dismissed as ‘ludicrous’

The Conservative party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, has been accused of insulting NHS workers with a “ludicrous” suggestion that it is the wrong time to strike over low pay because it would help Vladimir Putin divide the west.

Zahawi told broadcasters that nurses should call off their strikes and abandon their pay demands because it risked playing into the hands of the Russian president, who he said wanted to fuel inflation in the west.

He called on unions representing nurses and other medical workers to enter into talks – though the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) pointed out that it was government ministers who were refusing to open any negotiations over the NHS pay deal. Union sources have indicated they would be willing to look at a sub-inflation offer but the government is declining to discuss pay at all.

The RCN has planned two possible strike days, on 15 and 20 December, if the government refuses to revisit its 3% pay rise at a time when inflation is running at 11%. Unison, Unite and the GMB are also looking at days for industrial action, with ambulance workers in some trusts likely to strike before Christmas.

Zahawi said on Sunday that the military would be on standby to drive ambulances, and he urged unions not to proceed with strike action. He said: “This is a time to come together and to send a very clear message to Mr Putin that we’re not going to be divided in this way … Our message to the unions is to say this is not a time to strike, this is a time to try and negotiate.”

He claimed Putin was using energy as a weapon against Ukraine, and the higher inflation this caused would be worsened by increasing public sector pay – even though many private-sector workers are getting pay deals higher than inflation.

Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary, said it was a “new low” for the government to “use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK”.

She said: “The public does not believe this kind of rhetoric and wants ministers to address our dispute. Nursing staff cannot afford their food and other bills and still fear the worst on energy this winter … Ten days until our strike action is due to begin, I reiterate my commitment to meeting with ministers to address our dispute. Instead of negotiating with nurses, they are choosing strike action.”

In response to Zahawi’s claims about strikes helping Putin, Sara Gorton, the head of health at Unison, said the government could “easily prevent strikes” if the health secretary, Steve Barclay, started talking to unions about increasing NHS staff pay.

“But instead of taking responsibility for trying to solve the growing staffing crisis, ministers want to ratchet up the rhetoric and pick fights with ambulance workers and their NHS colleagues,” she said. “This won’t go down well with the public. People have lots of sympathy for health workers and know that if wages improve, so will vacancy rates and patient care.”

She added: “The Scottish government has averted strikes by talking to health unions and boosting pay. Ministers in Westminster should do the very same.”

Pressure on the government to enter talks on pay is likely to build over the next 10 days. The former health secretary Stephen Dorrell said on Sunday that a 3% deal “doesn’t properly respond to the challenges of the moment”.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the public would blame “reckless and irresponsible ministers” for strikes rather than nurses.

The Liberal Democrats said it was “ludicrous and insulting to suggest Vladimir Putin is responsible for nurses going on strike”. Christine Jardine, the Lib Dems’ Cabinet Office spokesperson, said: “The responsibility lies firmly with this Conservative government’s shambolic failure to find a solution. Conservative ministers wasted billions of taxpayers’ money on dodgy PPE contracts and now are refusing to offer a fair pay rise to nurses. It is a clear demonstration of how out of touch Zahawi and this Conservative government really are.”

Zahawi said the government was making plans to bring in military personnel. “It is the right and responsible thing to do to have contingency plans in place,” he told Sky News. “We have a very strong team at Cobra who are doing a lot of the work in looking at what we need to do to minimise the disruption to people’s lives.

“We are looking at the military, we are looking at a specialist response force which we set up a number of years ago. We have to make sure our borders are always secure and that is something we guarantee. Things like driving ambulances and other parts of the public sector – we have got to try and minimise disruption.”

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson told the BBC there needed to be a “fair deal for workers” and there could not be a “position of agreement without negotiation”. She said trade unions were right to “argue around pay and terms and conditions” and they were “desperate to have a conversation and have a discussion around pay”, while ministers were refusing to do so.

Phillipson said there was likely to be a compromise somewhere between the union’s requests and the government’s offer.

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