Nurses’ salaries should be looked at again, ministers told, as more walkouts loom

Nurses outside St Thomas’ Hospital, London Credit. Photographer Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The Daily Telegraph
By Laura Donnelly, Lizzie Roberts

Ministers are being urged to ask the independent pay review body to come up with fresh recommendations to resolve the NHS pay dispute.

The head of the Commons health committee was among those calling on the Government and unions to find a way towards compromise, as further NHS strikes loom.

Nurses walked out on Thursday, the first national strike by members of the Royal College of Nursing. The NHS chief nurse Dame Ruth May received a rebuke from Downing Street after joining the picket line.

Health chiefs warned on Thursday that next week’s strikes will bring “a different magnitude of risk” to patients, as paramedics follow nurses on to picket lines.

There are fears that victims of heart attacks and strokes could be left without ambulances during strikes next week, with unions at loggerheads with the NHS.

Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, said the Government was having “very active discussions” in a bid to ensure that emergency cases are protected from the strikes.

Ministers have said that all category 1 and 2 calls – deemed life-threatening and emergencies – should be exempted from strike action. But unions have said all agreements will be made at a local level between trust leaders and union representatives.

The strikes by ambulance crews on Wednesday will follow a second day of action by nurses, with Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members due to return to picket lines on Tuesday.

Latest figures show 111 call lines increasingly overwhelmed, even before strikes, with more than half of calls abandoned on Dec 11. Meanwhile. one in three ambulances were forced to queue outside hospitals during the same week, the NHS statistics show.

The RCN is understood to be considering holding three more strikes in January, with longer periods of action under consideration, as it demands a pay rise of 19 per cent.

On Thursday a former chairman of the independent NHS Pay Review Body suggested that it should be asked to come up with fresh recommendations, which take account of recent rises in inflation.

The recommendations earlier this year had meant an average rise of 4.75 per cent for nurses in England and Wales, with extra for the lowest paid. Jerry Cope, a former chairman of the body, said a “very quick turnaround” on this year’s recommendations could form a solution for “this apparently intractable problem”.

Noting that the last review took place in February, he said: “The world was a rather different place in February and therefore I think some of the evidence they considered was probably out of date by the time it was published.

“I think it’s a way out because it respects the integrity of the pay review body.”

The idea was backed by Steve Brine, chairman of the Commons health and social care committee. “Everyone needs to cool it and I think sending it back to the pay review body to have a look would be a sensible answer,” he said.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation, told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “We would be open to any suggestion that brings the sides together. The question is how do we get through the winter and any idea that enables both sides to feel that that they can agree on something and can lift the risk of industrial action – well I would say explore that.”

However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Downing Street had “no plans to tell the independent body what to do”. And unions last night rejected the idea.

Sara Gorton, Unison head of health, said: “There’s no need to start another long-winded evidence round. A wage boost is needed now, not months down the line.”

Pat Cullen, RCN General Secretary, told BBC Breakfast that the independent pay review body was “set up by government, paid by government, appointed by government and the parameters of the review are set by government, so there’s nothing independent about it.”

On Thursday, the NHS chief nurse was slapped down by Downing Street after joining nurses on picket lines.

Dame Ruth, a senior official who had raised concerns about the risks strikes will pose to patients, said she supported all nurses “whether on the picket lines or on the wards”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “She doesn’t work for the Government, she’s not a minister. Obviously she has her own view as chief nurse. The Government must consider what is a responsible action in the round.”

A Whitehall source added: “She’s speaking for herself, but obviously its not helpful.”

Earlier this week Dame Ruth, who earns more than £180,000 a year in her role for NHS England, spoke out against the RCN.

The senior figure – who took part in nursing strikes in the 1980s, which the RCN opposed – said the union had not done enough to protect patient safety.

Speaking from the picket line at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, Dame Ruth told The Times: “I support all nurses. I back all nurses and want to support them to use their voice, whether that’s in there on the wards or out here on the picket lines.

“I want to see the Royal College of Nursing working together with the Government to get a resolution to this.”

In a video posted on social media, Dame Ruth said: “I’m here today at St Thomas’ to thank all nurses. Of course pay is a matter between the unions and the Government and I’d like to see, as nurses around the country would like to see, a resolution as soon as possible.”

Dame Ruth said she had met nurses on the wards and on the picket line, saying nurses should “use their voices” and would “continue to ensure minimal risk to patient safety”.

Mr Barclay said she had given him notice that she was going to meet nurses on the the picket line.

“What she was very clear on is she wanted to support all nurses, and I think as chief nurse that’s absolutely right,” he said on a visit to Chelsea and Westminster hospital in London.