Health Secretary meets nursing leaders over strikes

Health Secretary Steve Barclay is meeting nursing leaders on Monday after a bitter war of words over industrial action.

Mr Barclay has made clear the Government’s position on pay remains unchanged though the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it was hopeful the talks could be productive.

It is understood the topic and status of the talks were not pre-agreed before the meeting.

Earlier, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters that Mr Barclay was willing to speak to nurses after RCN chief executive Pat Cullen said the Government’s door was “firmly shut” while hers was “wide open”.

He said: “I think he’s been clear that he’s always willing to meet with the Royal College of Nursing.”

Pressed on whether he is willing to talk to the union about pay, the official said: “The position on pay has not changed – that’s rightly for an independent review body to decide.”

An RCN spokesman said: “We have replied positively to his email and we will attend in the hope the Government is now serious about negotiating.”

A meeting of Cobra – the Government’s emergency response committee – is understood to be ongoing.

The military and civil servants are likely to be brought in to cover Border Force staff, while armed forces will also be deployed to hospital trusts ahead of an ambulance worker strike on December 21.

The talks between the RCN and Mr Barclay come as strikes by ambulance staff and some NHS workers in Scotland have been called off after members of two unions voted to accept the Scottish government’s recent pay deal.

Some 64% of Unite members who voted were in favour of the deal.

Members of Unison also voted to cancel action, with 57% backing the deal on a turnout of 62%.

Following negotiations with Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and the intervention of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the new deal would mean NHS workers in Scotland would remain the best paid in the UK, and workers would get pay rises ranging from £2,205 to £2,751.

For the lowest paid it would be a rise of 11.3%, with an average rise of 7.5%.

Earlier, Mr Barclay said pay is set by the independent pay review body as he indicated there will be no movement on nurse pay in England.

He added: “I don’t want to be taking money away from clearing the backlog, which is what we would have to do – we’d have to take money away from patients waiting for operations to then fund additional pay.

“And if everyone in the public sector were to get an increase in line with inflation, that would be costing £28 billion at a time when the Government has to get inflation under control, because that is the biggest factor in terms of people’s cost of living.”

The RCN has said nurses could suspend planned strikes if the Government agrees to talks on pay.

Patricia Marquis, England director of the RCN, told Times Radio the Government needs to make “a serious commitment to coming to talk about pay and safe staffing and not talking about peripheral issues, which are important, but are not going to solve this dispute.”

There are currently 7.2 million people on the NHS waiting list for planned treatment.

The total waiting list was steadily increasing before the Covid pandemic, from 2.5 million in April 2012 to 4.6 million in February 2020.

Shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, accused Barclay of “spoiling for a fight”.

He said: “I think the Government’s stubborn refusal to engage in serious negotiations shows they are spoiling for a fight.

“They want to blame nurses, blame paramedics, blame NHS staff for challenges in the national health service which are the direct fault and responsibility of 12 years of Conservative mismanagement – frankly, I think it’s disgusting.”

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