The government is planning to soften its hardline position towards striking NHS workers in a fresh bid to bring the long-running dispute to an end, reports suggest.
On Wednesday, nurses called off a planned 48-hour strike after Health Secretary Steve Barclay invited the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) leader Pat Cullen for “intensive talks” - with discussions of a possible one-off payment for this year and a backdated pay rise for the next on the agenda. However, this prompted other health unions to make it clear that the government could not reach a settlement with just the RCN, with some accusing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of giving “special treatment”.
But in a sign ministers are looking to calm tensions, it has emerged that the GMB, Unison, and Unite unions will next week be called in for pay discussions with Barclay. A union source told the i paper, who first reported the development, that it seems the “mood music is changing”.
It comes more than two months after nurses walked out for the first time in NHS history, as they protested over pay, conditions, and patient safety. But despite the disruption - which saw thousands of operations and appointments cancelled - recent polling suggests that public support remains with the nurses.
According to Sky News, 43% of the public ‘strongly support’ nurse industrial action and 22% ‘support’ it - the highest level of backing out of all the striking sectors. Ambulance unions came in second place, with 40% ‘strongly supporting’ and 21% ‘supporting’ industrial action, while driving examiners, TfL workers, and university staff fell behind - with just 12%, 16%, and 16% of the public offering ‘strong support’.
This public sentiment may have contributed to the government’s decision to offer an olive branch to nurses, but other health unions - which also have high levels of public support - insist they too should be offered the chance to engage in renewed discussions.
NHS workers are all paid according to the same contract - the collective Agenda for Change - which means that if nurses are awarded an enhanced pay rise for 2023/2024, other healthcare staff on the same bands would be given an increase too. However, there is the flexibility to make exemptions, particularly if ministers declare that nursing is undergoing a “crisis” in staffing and recruitment.
Insiders said this has fuelled fears among unions that the government could use this “loophole” to give nurses preferential treatment.
From the government’s side, the offer for fresh talks comes only if unions agree to pause their planned strikes, as the RCN did on Wednesday (22 February) and Thursday (23 February). Currently, as many as 32,000 healthcare workers, including ambulance staff and paramedics, are due to walkout on 8 March.
The British Medical Association (BMA), the country’s main union for junior doctors, was one of the only healthcare unions to not be invited to meet with the Health Secretary in the coming week. On Friday (24 February), they announced their intention to strike for 72 hours from 13 March, with a spokesperson saying they were left with “no choice”.
A union source said: “The mood music is changing. But any offer of talks needs to be on the same terms as the RCN.” Another insider added: “There cannot be a deal only with the RCN. It’s that simple.”