An offer by nursing trade unions to “press pause” on planned strikes before Christmas is set to go unheeded by the government, senior Cabinet ministers have signalled. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has offered to suspend the proposed action if Health Secretary Steve Barclay agrees to negotiate properly on pay.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Sunday robustly defended the independent review process that the government has insisted should determine pay increases, as he appeared to rule out Barclay entering talks on nurses’ salaries.
“He has said he is willing to meet them,” the Cabinet minister told Sky News.
“Meetings are different from pay negotiation.
“Ultimately, independent bodies are there for a reason – it is to take the politics out of this sort of stuff.”
Health Secretary accused of ‘bullyboy’ tactics
The war of words between nursing unions and the government increased this week, as the planned strike action approaches.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, whose members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 20, made the offer to pause the walkout in exchange for pay talks on Saturday night after earlier this week accusing the Health Secretary of deploying “bullyboy” tactics.
On the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Cullen said she is willing to be flexible but denied her trade union’s position has changed.
“What I am saying is the Health Secretary can choose negotiation over picket lines,” she said.
“My door is open, I am offering conciliation (through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and we can start that from tomorrow morning. I won’t dig in if he doesn’t dig in.”
Strikes to cause disruption in run up to Christmas
Meanwhile, Barclay used an editorial for the Sun on Sunday to criticise the planned strikes amid serious pressures on the NHS.
The strike is expected to cause major disruption to the health service in the run-up to Christmas, with ambulance workers also set to strike on December 21.
Nurses and other nursing staff will take action at half of the locations in England where the legal mandate was reached for strikes, every NHS employer except one in Wales and throughout Northern Ireland.
“In a winter when we’re worrying about Covid, flu and Strep A – on top of the Covid backlogs – I am deeply concerned about the risks of strike action to patients,” Barclay said.
“We are working hard to make sure patients experience as little disruption as possible. But with the NHS already under pressure due to the Covid pandemic and coming winter, the risks to patients will be significant,” he wrote.
‘An offer too good to refuse’
Labour accused the government of spoiling for a fight with nurses.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told Sky News that the government needs to “grow up and get around the table” after the Royal College of Nursing and the Unison union said they will suspend strikes if ministers are prepared to meet and talk about pay.
“I think that is an offer that’s too good to refuse and I want the government to explain why they aren’t prepared to even sit down and talk even though they know patients will experience real disruption as a result of strike action,” he said.
Royal Mail workers, nurses, paramedics, rail workers and Border Force officials will all stage walkouts over jobs, pay and conditions this month.
Additional reporting by PA