On 16 March the government offered a 5.2 per cent pay rise and a one-off payment of at least £1,655 to NHS staff in England, including nurses, ambulance workers and midwives, in what could finally be a breakthrough in the stalemate between the unions and government. The deal will now go to a ballot of union members. The three biggest unions involved, the Royal College of Nursing, GMB and Unison, are recommending that the offer be accepted. Unite, on the other hand, has said it cannot recommend the deal to its members.
This all adds to what has been a rather jolly month for Rishi Sunak. He managed to strike a deal with Europe over post-Brexit trade agreements in Northern Ireland. His immigration bill and detention centre arrangement with President Macron is a strong signal to voters that the government is serious about tackling illegal immigration. The childcare offering in the Budget poses a real threat to Labour – taking ownership of one of the opposition’s strongest policies. Now, an improved NHS pay offer on the back of a slightly improved economic forecast could convince voters that he and his chancellor are a safe pair of hands.
But the unrest is not over yet. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers were on strike on Wednesday over low wages, and public support for the strikes remains high. The RMT rejected the Transport Secretary’s last “best and final” offer, dubbing it “dreadful”. Meanwhile, junior doctors have only just begun their industrial action, this week conducting a 72-hour walkout, while asking for a 35 per cent pay rise – considerably higher than the 5 per cent offered to other NHS staff.
Public support for nurses is the highest of all striking workers, and if health workers choose to take the deal, other industries may be expected to accept similar offers. There are still concerns about who will fund for the deal, with NHS England warning it would have to cut back on services if it is not given more money to pay for it.
It’s also worth remembering that Wednesday’s Budget helpfully exposed public finances for all to see. Since the Chancellor was able to find billions to abolish the cap on the pensions lifetime allowance and freeze fuel duty, some workers may be wondering if they shouldn’t hold out for a little bit more.