Nursing strikes to continue after 'bitterly disappointing' government talks

Nursing strikes are set to continue in England after health unions called government talks over pay 'bitterly disappointing'.
Allan Preston

HOPES of a breakthrough on nursing pay were dashed today as the Royal College of Nursing described government talks as "bitterly disappointing."

Several trade unions held meetings with the government in London today after the RCN leader Pat Cullen said she detected “a chink of optimism” from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The RCN had demanded a pay rise of 19 per cent for nurses, but Ms Cullen indicated recently she was prepared to meet the government “halfway”.

The talks were understood to have focused on a new pay award for the 2023/24 financial year, but the RCN has said it will not call off strike action without agreement for 2022/23.

Nurses in Northern Ireland joined picket lines before Christmas and further RCN strikes are planned in England this month.

After meeting the Health Secretary Steve Barclay, the RCN's head of employment and legal services, Joanne Galbraith-Marten, said: “There is no resolution to our dispute yet in sight. Today’s meeting was bitterly disappointing – nothing for the current year and repeating that ‘the budget is already set’ for next year.

“This intransigence is letting patients down. Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike.”

Unite union negotiator Onay Kasab, who represents ambulance workers, said he had been left “very angry” after the meeting with Mr Barclay.

“The government have missed yet another opportunity to put this right,” he told the BBC.

“We came here in good faith. What they want to talk about is productivity, when our members are working 18 hour shifts.

“Quite how you become more productive with that, I do not know.”

With no agreement on a one-off payment for the 2022-23 financial year, he added: “That is absolutely ludicrous. This isn’t a factory we’re talking about, we’re talking about people who are working well beyond their contracted hours anyway just to get the job done because they can’t hand patients over and because they care so much.

“So for the government to be talking about productivity in exchange for a (payment) is an insult to every one of our members.

“You all know what’s going on in hospitals at the moment, you all know how hard everyone is working so today is an insult to our members.”

Expectations of a shift in policy from the government had been raised by Mr Sunak on Sunday during an interview on the Laura Kuenssberg programme, where he said: "We want to have a reasonable, two-way conversation about pay and everything else that is relevant."

Labour's shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, described RCN leader Pat Cullen as "a tough negotiator" who “stands up for her members, and I think she’s genuinely speaking for nurses and representing the opinion of nurses”.

“She actually offered to call off the nurses’ strike before Christmas if the government would sit down and negotiate on pay," he told the BBC.

“She is now offering to meet the government halfway. Surely that is a good starting point now for serious talks on pay? She’s shown a degree of reasonableness in the face of government unreasonableness.”