Unions have warned nurses could strike or leave the profession altogether after ministers recommended a controversial 1 per cent pay rise.
Critics say the award would amount to a real-terms pay cut and is a slap in the face for NHS staff who have spent a year on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19.
At the weekend Boris Johnson defended the pay offer, saying his government had given “as much as we can”.
But Tory peer Lord Bethell risked pouring oil on the flames of the row, saying nursing was a “challenging” profession but one that attracted a “ long queue of people” who wished to join its ranks.
Challenged by a fellow peer that an offer “that amounts to £3.50 a week looks more like a kick in the teeth than a top priority”, Lord Bethell said: “There are lots of people who have had an extremely tough time and who face a period of unemployment.“
He added: “Nurses are well paid for the job. They have a secure job and they have other benefits. There are many people in this country who look upon professional jobs in the NHS with some envy and we shouldn’t forget the fact that some public sector jobs are in fact extremely well paid.”
He went on: “I can’t hide the fact that across the public sector there is a pay freeze. The only area where that doesn’t apply to is to the NHS.
“Many in the private sector have lost their jobs and their prospects altogether and there is a massive economic challenge on the horizon.“
“We absolutely fool ourselves if we lose our eyes to that and we regard the public sector as somehow sacrosanct and immune to the larger economic challenge that we have.”
Earlier NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens had confirmed that plans set out previously had budgeted for NHS pay to increase by 2.1 per cent this year.
Labour peer Lord Hunt of Kings Heath said: “It’s one thing for the prime minister to be filmed applauding his appreciation for NHS staff, but no amount of clapping is going to help pay for rising living costs.”
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