Politics Explained

Will Boris Johnson turn the NHS pay row into yet another culture war?

Strike action in the health sector is always difficult because it looks as though poorly people fighting for their lives are the targets and victims, writes Sean O’Grady

Thursday 22 July 2021 23:58
<p>There is every chance unions might actually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory</p>

There is every chance unions might actually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

For obvious reasons even normal times there are few more politically volatile issues than nursespay. In a second year of the covid pandemic, after the “clap for carers”, Sir Tom Moore’s high-profile appeal and innumerable examples of selflessness, saving lives without proper protection and some making the ultimate sacrifice, this year’s NHS pay settlement demanded careful and sensitive treatment. It’s fair to say that ministers’ handling of it fell some distance short of it appearing in the textbooks as a case study in successful governance. And now they don’t even have Matt Hancock around to carry the can.

The net result of the last few days of mixed messages, zig-zagging, pulled parliamentary statements, and general confusion is that the government has ended up in the worst of all worlds. The initial offer of 1 per cent might have been worth fighting over for the sake of the public finances, given that the NHS is such a huge employer and the bill for pay and pensions so high, but instead the government – in England and Wales – has succumbed to pressure in such a confused manner that its 3 per cent offer has managed to disgust all concerned.

The idea that 1.5 per cent of it would be a one-off bonus was adopted and then abandoned within hours, and the 3 per cent will now be permanent, still inexplicably 1 per cent below the level offered by the Scottish government. It is also way short of what the unions and the Royal College of Nurses are demanding – 12.5 per cent and upwards, and of course it excludes “junior” doctors (ie anyone below the rank of consultant, who, as it happens, are having a 1 per cent pay rise). Care and agency workers not directly employed by the NHS will also have different pay arrangements. The recent award of the George Cross probably doesn’t make up for a pay rise below rapidly rising inflation. Or will it fix the 80,000 vacancies in the NHS. Nor does the government want to say whether the higher pay settlement (ie from 1 per cent to 3 per cent) will be “new” money or somehow surgically sliced out of existing budgets.

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