Rishi Sunak is facing a mounting backlash from Conservative MPs over NHS strikes and the government’s refusal to change stance on nurses pay.
Downing Street said there are “no plans” to look again at the 4 to 5 per cent pay rise offer for nurses who are staging their biggest ever strike in the history of the NHS.
But several top Tories – including the influential ex-Tory chairman Sir Jake Berry, NHS hospital doctor Dan Poulter and health select committee chair Steve Brine – have called for a rethink.
Sir Jake said the government pay offer is “too low”, while Dr Poulter said ministers should “improve on the current offer on the table”.
It follows an intervention by the former head of the NHS pay review body, Jerry Cope, who said the offer made in February was “probably out of date” in light of soaring inflation.
Backing Mr Cope’s call for a new review, Mr Brine told the BBC’s World At One programme: “I think the way out is to protect the integrity of the process, go back and ask them to look again.”
The senior Tory backbencher added: “Everyone needs to cool it and I think sending it back to the pay review body to have a look would be a sensible answer.”
Dr Poulter told The Guardian on Thursday it was right for the government to follow independent pay review bodies in “normal times”.
The Tory MP added: “But these are not normal times and inflation has significantly eroded real-terms pay since the review bodies made their recommendations earlier in the year.”
Mr Berry, who left government when Liz Truss was replaced by Mr Sunak, suggested a climb down was inevitable. “I can tell you that I think 19 per cent is too high, And I can tell you that the government offer is too low,” he told Talk TV.
The ex-minister added: “They asked for 19 per cent, the government offers three or four or whatever it is, and they’re going to meet somewhere in the middle. We need to find a way … to get to that centre point, that point of agreement straight away.”
The pressure is mounting on Mr Sunak to find a compromise on pay, with the latest Ipsos poll showing that 52 per cent of voters support the nurse strikes, with only 27 per cent against.
But No 10 and health secretary Steve Barclay would not back down on Thursday, standing firm in their stance of refusing to engage in pay negotiations with the nursing unions.
Asked about the idea the pay review body could be asked to look again at the offer in light of inflation, Mr Sunak’s official spokesperson said there are “no plans” to review the pay deal for nurses.
Mr Barclay against said the 19 per cent pay rise demand – RPI inflation plus 5 per cent – was “not affordable given the situation the economy faces”.
Pressed on whether could be willing to discuss pay with the RCN, Mr Barclay said: “We’ve been clear that we have an independent process and that is the process we followed.”
Ex-pay review body chief Mr Cope told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier on Thursday that “the world was a rather different place” from when the offer was made February. He said another review “may be a possibility for a solution for this apparently intractable problem”.
Pat Cullen, leader of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, warned there was a “strong possibility” of further nurses’ strikes in January unless the government changed its hardline stance.
Government to blame for ‘tragic’ NHS strike, says nursing union boss
The RCN boss suggested she was willing to compromise on pay rise demands if Mr Barclay would only “get in a room” and discuss pay.
“This is a tragic day for nurses, a tragic day for patients,” she said. “And it’s tragic that this government has decided not to speak to us, talk to us.”
Elsewhere, chief nursing officer for England Dame Ruth May joined striking nurses on the picket line at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London.
In a video posted on Twitter, Dame Ruth said on the picket line that she supports striking nurses, and said ministers must reach an “urgent resolution” with the RCN.
Asked about the top official’s support for striking staff, the PM’s official spokesman said: “She doesn’t work for the government – she’s not a minister. Obviously she has her own view as chief nurse.”
Picket lines were set up at dozens of hospitals on Thursday in the dispute over pay, as the health service is forced to run a bank holiday-style service in many areas.
Liverpool staff nurse Kelly Hopkins, 46, said: “I have connections with the food bank and there are more and more nurses using the food bank, which is just not acceptable … it’s just crazy.”
Around 70,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries will be lost in England due to the nursing strike, according to the government, with nurses also set to walk out on 20 December.