The Department of Health said that the battle against inflation left little room for anything other than a modest pay award, signalling the beginning of a bitter pay round.
But nurses' leaders maintained that the claim, more than twice the rate of inflation, which would add about pounds 348m to the pounds 4bn pay bill, was essential to restore wage levels to those of 1988, when clinical grading introduced new pay structures for nurses.
If the demand was not met in full, improvements made as a result of the Patient's Charter would be in jeopardy because of staff shortages that would arise.
But the submission by the Nursing Midwifery Staffs Negotiating Council acknowledges that as a result of the recession, vacancy rates have fallen.
The document warns the Government against failing to implement fully any review body award - as it has done in four of the last nine years - - as a 'quick fix' for its economic mistakes. It asserts that even though vacancies have fallen temporarily during the recession, they will quickly re- emerge once the economy begins to pick up.
The council also urges the Government to look to the future with regard to the increased demand for nurses over the next decade to meet the needs of the growing number of elderly people.
Nursing also faces a squeeze as the number of school-leavers declines and higher education attracts greater numbers. Figures indicate that nursing will have to attract one in three of all suitably qualified female school-leavers in the coming financial year to meet its needs.
The document warns that any further erosion of pay levels would send the message to existing staff and potential recruits that nursing is not held in high esteem. 'The inevitable result will be that the image of nursing as a low-paid profession will be reasserted and recruitment and retention difficulties will follow,' it says.
Christine Hancock, the Royal College of Nursing general secretary, said: 'To use a phrase which is widely understood, nurses' pay needs the kiss of life. Low inflation and low increases in average earnings mean that nurses' salaries can be boosted without breaking the bank. We believe the Government can now give the profession the urgent tonic it needs.'
Malcolom Wing, national secretary of the public employees' union Nupe, said: 'Siren voices urging pay freezes for public employees ring hollow from a government that has given the green light to huge pay hikes that would squeeze nurses' living standards. The Pay Review Body must not allow itself to be bullied into recommendations that squeeze nurses' living standards.'
As if to echo their fears, a Department of Health spokesman said: 'In order to maintain the fight against inflation, there is no case for anything other than exceptionally modest increases in salaries in the coming year. Overall the recruitment and retention of nurses is highly satisfactory.'Reuse content