The government has recommended that NHS staff in England should receive a 1% pay increase this year, a move that has seen nurses leaders looking at the prospect of strike action.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Friday that the decision to recommend such a small increase was due to an assessment of “what’s affordable as a nation” after the economic toll taken by the coronavirus crisis.
Health unions have criticised the 1% pay proposal and one - representing nurses - is calling for a 12.5% increase instead.
In November, the government announced that public-sector workers would have their pay frozen in 2021-22.
Put on the spot about his repeated praise for NHS workers over the course of the pandemic, Hancock insisted he could not be more generous: “We do have issues of the affordability because of the consequences of the pandemic on the public finances, which were set out in the budget this week.”
Hancock also ruled out the idea of a one-off payment for health staff in recognition of their work in the pandemic, as promised by the Scottish government to its workforce, saying this “isn’t the approach we have chosen to take”.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has described the 1% figure as pitiful, holding an emergency meeting that agreed to set up a £35m fund to support members in the event of a strike.
It said it would only be used by members “should they wish to take action ,stating that the “next steps will be decided in conjunction” with them.
The junior health minister Nadine Dorries said on Friday that ideally nurses would get a bigger pay rise, and she suggested the government could “move” on the issue.
She said the offer was the most the government thought it could afford and put forward to the NHS pay review body. She told Sky News: “That will be discussed, then we will wait for feedback from unions and other health sector stakeholders and see where we move to on this, but the 1% is what the government can afford.”
The NHS Confederation, which represents hospital trusts and other organisations, expressed alarm at the prospect of a strike. “This is not the scenario anyone would want, but this clearly shows the depth of feeling at the RCN,” its chief executive, Danny Mortimer, said.
The 1% figure, which is for staff across the UK, will now be considered by the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration, and also the NHS pay review body, which covers nurses and other staff. Both are expected to report back in May, with final decisions made by Hancock or the relevant devolved administration.
The recent pay debate in many ways is similar to 2010-11, when it was decided that pay would be frozen for all public-sector workers as part of government austerity measures.
Strict pay freezes or pay caps were implemented until 2018-19, when the government removed these limits and a three-year pay agreement was implemented for NHS staff in England.
Nonetheless, the impact of inflation means that over the whole period some salaries are worth less than they were a decade ago.