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22 February 2023

Tories hope U-turn on nurses’ pay will boost poll numbers

The government is negotiating with selected striking workers after finding it had £30bn more than expected.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has paused its strike action, due to take place next Thursday and Friday, and has entered “intensive” talks with ministers over a pay deal.

According to a report in the FT, the government has offered a rise of 5 per cent, alongside a backdated payment. It aims to end walkouts, which have been ongoing since December. Nurses’ strike action is generally supported by the public. Separately, the National Education Union has been invited to talks with Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, though the 3 per cent increase thought to be presented may not be enough to end its strikes.

Why now? The news that Health Secretary Steve Barclay was prepared to meet nurses came after the Treasury discovered it had £30bn more headroom than the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts predicted.

The government’s shift in approach comes after months of hard-line stances and rushed anti-strike legislation, which the independent Regulatory Policy Committee called “shoddy and unworkable” because of a deficiency in ministers’ impact assessment for the bill.

Some Conservatives believe ending the strikes could help Rishi Sunak close the poll gap with Keir Starmer’s Labour ahead of May’s local elections. One Tory source told me that striking deals with unions could see the party’s poll ratings, currently at 24 per cent according to the latest survey by Redfield and Wilton, reach 30 per cent.

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The RCN general secretary has said she is “confident” of returning with a “fair pay settlement” for nursing, but the breakthrough doesn’t mean other strikes will stop. Other health unions have said they are disappointed not to be invited to talks.

There are also negotiations ongoing about the pay deals for public sector-staff for the next financial year, which starts in April. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said rises of 3.5 per cent may be affordable but claims that anything above 5 per cent would risk making inflation worse (though the latter is expected to fall in the months ahead).

However, that may put the government at odds with pay review boards – the independent bodies that assess pay and whose recommendations the government has stuck to – which will likely back greater increases in pay.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

Read more:

Tories hope U-turn on nurses’ pay will boost poll numbers

Focus on prevention to keep the NHS true to its soul

When teachers strike, the country stops working

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