Health unions in England are threatening an escalation of strike action if there is no move from the government to improve on this year’s NHS pay offer, as nurses prepare for fresh walkouts this week.
The Royal College of Nursing said it would announce new strike dates for February before Wednesday, when “tens of thousands” of its members are set to strike at 55 NHS trusts across England that were not part of its previous action in December.
If there was no progress in pay talks by the end of the month, February’s strikes would be more than twice as big, involving all eligible members in England, the RCN said.
Health secretary Steve Barclay is considering a one-off payment to nurses to help with cost-of-living pressures, but has been told by the UK Treasury it must be paid from within his existing departmental budget.
Barclay has told nursing leaders to help identify efficiency savings to find cash to fund a lump-sum payment and future pay rise. His allies said they “totally rejected” suggestions of a cabinet split on the issue.
More talks are expected this week, but the Treasury’s focus is on addressing pay concerns in the NHS, primarily through the independent pay review process for the 2023-24 pay round.
In contrast, the RCN has paused planned strikes in Scotland after the Scottish government said it would accelerate talks on a pay deal for 2023-24 that could then be backdated to January, effectively giving staff a pay rise for part of the current financial year as well.
“The prime minister gave nursing staff a little optimism that he was beginning to move, but seven days later he appears entirely uninterested in finding a way to stop this,” said Pat Cullen, RCN’s general secretary, accusing Rishi Sunak of “baffling, reckless and politically ill-considered” intransigence.
The GMB union has also said it could announce dates next week for a series of further strikes by ambulance staff.
Meanwhile, strike action could spread to state education, with the National Education Union set to announce on Monday the result of a ballot covering about 250,000 teachers and 50,000 support staff across England and Wales.
The NAHT headteachers’ union is also set to announce its ballot result. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told the Observer newspaper that even if ballots failed to clear thresholds for turnout — as happened last week with the teachers’ union NASUWT — unions might ask their members to vote again should disputes remained unresolved.
Hopes of progress on one front are rising, however, with rail employers edging towards a deal with the RMT union, whose members were among the first to strike in the wave of industrial action now sweeping the UK.
Train company bosses and unions are set to resume talks this week, amid growing optimism that a deal could be within reach to end at least some of the strikes that have hobbled the railway for more than six months.
Transport secretary Mark Harper said on Sunday that he was optimistic that the two sides could reach an agreement. “I hope there will be a deal, I am not going to put an artificial timetable on it . . . but I think both the companies and the rail unions are keen to reach an agreement,” he told the BBC.
The RMT and TSSA unions said last week they were “working jointly” with train companies towards a new offer, after ministers allowed the industry to table a higher pay deal of 9 per cent over two years, tied to reforms to working practices.
Industry bosses are also optimistic that the RMT will look again at a similar pay offer from Network Rail, which was rejected late last year.
But even as hope rises over one part of the tangle of industrial disputes on the railways, Aslef, the union representing train drivers, is on Monday set to reject a separate pay offer of 8 per cent over two years from train companies, raising the prospect of further industrial action.
Aslef’s executive committee, made up of eight serving train drivers, will meet on Monday to discuss the offer from the Rail Delivery Group industry body, but its boss has warned “there is not one line” in the offer he could support.