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Nurses’ pay demands cannot be met, says UK health minister

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The UK’s health minister on Thursday said that the government had no realistic way of meeting nurses’ pay demands as the first day of historic strikes got under way.

Nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland will stage industrial action for 12 hours, after ministers refused to negotiate with the Royal College of Nursing over its demands for a 19 per cent pay increase.

Health minister Maria Caulfield expressed “huge regret” over the walkouts, but said that if the government agreed to the union’s pay increase, it would have to find the money either by increasing borrowing and taxes, or cutting services.

“A demand of 19 per cent is not something we can realistically deliver on,” she told Sky News. “We could’ve ignored the pay review bodies’ recommendation and gone for a much lower pay rise — we could go higher, but we have got to find that money from somewhere,” she added. “This isn’t government money, it’s taxpayers’ money.”

She added: “We reckon it’s about 70,000 appointments, procedures, surgeries that will be lost.”

In July, the government accepted recommendations from the independent NHS pay review bodies. As a result, more than 1mn staff working on Agenda for Change contracts — which includes nurses — received a pay rise of at least £1,400 backdated to April 2022.

However, Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the RCN, argued that nurses were asking for the “20 per cent that has been eroded” from their pay over the past decade to be returned, adding that there was “nothing independent” about the pay review process.

The independent pay review bodies were “set up by government, paid by government, appointed by government and the parameters of the review are set by government,” she told the BBC.

Cullen blamed the government for its refusal to negotiate, adding: “It’s tragic that this government has decided not to speak to us, talk to us, get into a room on the first day of strikes, and that’s why we’re here today.”

She also stressed that nurses had made arrangements with NHS leaders to ensure that critical care, such as urgent cancer treatment, went ahead.

“There will be disruption, no doubt,” she said later on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We are sorry about that.”

Striking nurses braving sub-zero temperatures outside St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, on Thursday morning saw the walkout as the only way to make the government listen to their demands for a substantial pay rise.

Anita D’Souza, who runs the inflammatory bowel disease nursing service across three hospitals, said she had “mixed feelings because we do care for our patients. But I think it’s time nurses had fair pay”.

Dame Ruth May, England’s chief nurse, joined the picket line outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, according to the Times, and urged the government to negotiate with the RCN.

“I support all nurses. I back all nurses and want to support them to use their voice, whether that’s in there on the wards or out here on the picket lines,” she said. “I’m urging the government to work with the Royal College of Nursing and other unions to make sure they get a resolution on pay.”

Cullen said that despite the walkout “all urgent cancer treatments will go ahead and should there be any individual cases that need to be dealt with today, our local communities will deal with those . . . and we’ll make sure that those patients are looked after”.

But she also warned that the two days of strikes in December “could be the beginning of a longer period of action” if the government continued to refuse formal pay talks.

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Meanwhile, the Public and Commercial Services Union announced an escalation of the industrial action it has already set in train, with driving instructors at a further seven sites set to join strikes at 10 other centres taking place in late December and January, and front-of-house Jobcentre staff in Doncaster striking later this month alongside colleagues.

“We won’t shift our position until and unless the government puts money on the table for our members, some of whom are claiming the benefits they themselves administer,” said Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, adding: “If the government wants a fight, it will get one.”

Train strikes that have crippled rail services for most of this week will also resume on Friday, with more than 40,000 members of the RMT union expected to walk out again on December 16 and 17. Rail minister Huw Merriman will on Thursday meet the RMT union, train operating companies and infrastructure owner Network Rail.

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