Government urged to make U-turn over 'unacceptable' 1% NHS pay rise as backlash grows

6 March 2021, 11:21 | Updated: 6 March 2021, 13:35

By Megan White

The Government is being urged to make a U-turn over the “unacceptable” one per cent pay rise for nurses amid a growing backlash, with trade unions considering strike action.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a press conference on Friday that the Government had "set out what is affordable" in the face of a challenging financial picture following £400 billion of borrowing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Minister Nadine Dorries told LBC on Friday that the Government cannot afford to give NHS staff more than one per cent.

Watch: 'This Government would be mistaken to pick a fight with nurses'

But former Health Secretary Andy Burnham has called on the Government to make a U-turn today and told LBC a “substantial real terms increase is right and proper.”

Mike Adams, Director for England at the Royal College of Nursing, also told LBC that nurses have been “undervalued” and said it was the “tipping point where our members certainly are just coming together and saying this is not acceptable.”

The Royal College of Nursing is calling for a 12.5 per cent increase and has decided to set up a £35 million industrial action fund to support members wanting to strike, warning a large number of nurses could leave the profession due to the "slap in the face" from the Government.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Mr Burnham told Matt Frei: “I’m angry, to be honest.

“The staff are worn out, they’re burnt out, they’ve given their all, and I can’t imagine how insulted they feel.

“But it’s more than anger – I’m worried about what it means for the NHS and for us all, because the NHS has still got a mountain in front of it, not just dealing with the pandemic, but all of the other health issues that have been on hold while the pandemic has been going on.

“The number of people now waiting over a year for treatment has increased massively.

“We can’t afford to have a demoralised workforce at this time, so I would say to the Government: public feeling is clear, U-turn on this today, do the U-turn today.

“Say that it was wrong to put forward one per cent, put a proper deal on the table, and include a bonus as well I think because of all of the extra efforts that NHS staff have gone through this year.

“That is the right thing to do to put the NHS in the right position with everything that is still ahead of it.”

He added: “You’ve got to remember there have been ten years of cuts and freezes, so nurses pay has gone down in real terms on the decade, so in the decade before the pandemic, on average, a nurse’s pay was down by £2,500.

“That is the starting point from which you have to then look at the year they’ve had with the pandemic and then this one per cent offer.”

Reacting to Mr Hancock’s comments, Mr Burnham said: “You say that but money has been found for all kinds of things and I would argue wasted on a whole number of things, so for the Health Secretary to say that it’s not affordable - I’m sorry, that isn’t the right answer.

“It is affordable if they choose to prioritise it, but they chose not to prioritise it.”

Reacting to Mr Hancock attempting to justify the increase, Mr Adams said: “I don’t think there is a justification for it and I think all of our members would have heard that and just sighed in disbelief, really.

“The issue of nursing pay is not a Covid issue, it’s an issue that has been brewing for many years, where the nursing profession across all environments – the NHS, yes, but also across social care areas as well – the fundamental role of the nurse has been undervalued for the clinical expertise, for the professionalism, for the responsibility of those roles for many years and this really is just the tipping point where our members certainly are just coming together and saying this is not acceptable.”

Asked whether it could have been more sensible for the Government to implement a public sector-wide pay freeze rather than the one per cent, Mr Adams added: “Possibly, you could also argue they could be doing this to divide and conquer, to be able to say ‘no one else is getting anything so you should be grateful of one per cent.’

“Whether it’s no per cent or one per cent, the nursing profession, the people we represent as a trade union, we have been calling for a long time now that nursing pay needs addressing.

“We have a huge shortage of people in the profession and the impact of this is the people we want to deliver care to receive less good care.

“The care is unsafe if there are not enough people with the right skills around them to deliver that care in all of the ranges of places - in community settings, in hospital settings, people with mental health illness, people with learning disabilities – they do not get the care that they need for the best life they can have if there aren’t enough nursing staff around them, and pay is the main driver that we hear from our members as to why they’re considering staying in, being attracted to it, or possibly leaving the profession.”

Asked if the union was serious about a strike, Mr Adams said: “The response we’ve had from our members is absolutely indicative that this is a moment in time where they’re prepared to do something different and they’re not prepared to just accept the Government narrative.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison union, said if the Government sticks to its 1% pay offer it will "cause widespread industrial upset".

Simon Walsh, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's UK consultants committee, said the "derisory" recommendation "reflects that the Government is really out of touch with the feeling of the public on this".

He added: "I hope (the Government) realise that their policies are in danger of preventing the NHS being able to recover from this pandemic and catch up with all the backlog of work."