Oliver Dowden has said the UK government will remain “resolute” on pay for nurses despite the potential for further strikes in January, as the NHS confederation chief said it was inevitable patients will be harmed by the strikes.
The Royal College of Nursing has said there will be “more hospitals and more nurses taking part than at present” in strikes throughout January, unless ministers backs down by Thursday.
Dowden, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has said ministers were being ‘“reasonable, we’re being sensible, and would urge the unions to be reasonable as well”.
But he said the government was not prepared to override the offer recommended by the independent pay review body, and risk fuelling inflation.
“I have to say we will be resolute in response to this, because it would be irresponsible to allow public sector pay and inflation to get out of control, and we owe a wider duty to the public to make sure we keep our public finances under control and we build a growing economy that can pay for these things,” he told the BBC’s Kuenssberg programme.
Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation, said it was clear the government’s refusal to talk about the key issue in the negotiations meant it was hard to see how talks could progress.
“It does seem as though the door is shut by the government when it comes to this question of pay,” he told BBC Breakfast. “So the secretary of state has said today that he’s willing to negotiate, except negotiate on the one issue that the trade unions want to negotiate on, which is pay.”
Taylor said there was the “possibility of progress”, as seen with the pay offer for nurses in Scotland. “So, even at this late moment, I call on both the government and the trade unions to be pragmatic, to recognise that having industrial action during a winter crisis in the health service creates risks, puts pressure on,” he said.
“So we’ve all got to be clear: there are going to be harms, there are going to be risks, and that’s why we’ve got to leave no stone unturned in making progress.”
The RCN has said said it would reveal its timetable of bigger and wider disputes if ministers failed to open fresh talks on pay within 48 hours of a second day of action planned for this Tuesday.
In a further round of disputes, it would work to ensure nurses restricted the kind of work they were prepared to do on strike days to a shorter list of activities in fewer areas than had been the case on the first strike day last Thursday.
The Observer reported that meetings had taken place between the Treasury and Department of Health and Social Care over recent days to discuss the dispute, including to potentially look at ways to give staff more money through one-off lump sum payments.
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the government “simply cannot afford the 19 per cent pay hike for nurses that the RCN is demanding. Frankly, neither can the NHS. I do not want people to miss out on vital treatment and operations, but that is what will happen if we divert resources from frontline services into unaffordable pay increases.”