Hopes of an NHS pay breakthrough have been raised, with ministers considering whether an extra boost for three months could bring an end to the dispute.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, has also agreed to look at making a one-off “cost of living” payment to staff following talks with union chiefs on Monday. Until now both sides had been at loggerheads, with ministers refusing to discuss the current pay round.
Over the weekend, the Health Secretary’s stance softened, with suggestions that NHS workers could see a significant pay boost in the next financial year, starting in April, if they agree to changes in working practices to boost productivity.
Monday’s talks raised the prospect that any such increase could be backdated and applied to the last quarter of the current financial year as well as to 2023/24. A source close to Mr Barclay said he had agreed to consider both this idea and proposals for a one-off payment.
On Monday night unions said “significant progress” had been made, but added that they would not cancel ambulance strikes due to take place on Wednesday without a tangible offer. Nurses leaders’ said the Government had “a distance to travel” to avert two days of strike action planned by nurses next week.
Sara Gorton, the head of health at Unison, which represents ambulance workers, said the talks had made “significant progress”. But she added: “Ministers know that unless they come up with some hard cash for a pay boost for what’s left of the current financial year there can be no resolution to the dispute.”
Rachel Harrison, the national secretary at GMB, which also represents ambulance workers, said a “concrete” offer was needed to stop the strikes.
Joanne Galbraith-Marten, the Royal College of Nursing director of employment relations and legal services, described the meeting as “bitterly disappointing” and warned that “ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurses’ strike.”
Meanwhile, Unite, which represents ambulance workers, said it was “outrageous” of ministers to demand productivity gains.
During his meetings with unions, Mr Barclay referenced estimates that inflation will still be 5.5 per cent throughout the coming financial year. Ministers have argued that, while they are willing to discuss a more generous pay settlement for 2022/23, they do not want to take any steps that will fuel inflation.
For a second day running, Rishi Sunak declined to rule out any increased financial support for striking NHS workers for the current financial year.
Teaching unions said ministers had failed to reduce the threat of industrial action after they walked away from talks with no promise of extra pay.
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, urged unions to consider the impact of school closures on children, saying that the “stakes have never been higher with strike action, as kids have lost out for two years of the pandemic with the impact on learning and mental health”, according to a source at the meeting.
However, Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “There is nothing so far that would dissuade us from taking industrial action because we think these meetings are only happening because of the threat of industrial action.”
Ministers have agreed to discussions on pay for the next financial year. However, unions are demanding above-inflation pay rises for this financial year, when teachers were given a five per cent pay increase, or 8.9 per cent for new teachers.
Three teaching union ballots will close this week. Mr Courtney said that if all of those unions vote to strike then the “vast majority” of schools in England and Wales would face closures.
New legislation to introduce a minimum service requirement during strikes for around half a dozen key sectors will be tabled in Parliament on Tuesday. If passed, it would give ministers the legal power to require some ambulances, fire engines, trains and schools to be kept working during industrial action.