Health secretary Steve Barclay has hinted that striking NHS staff could be offered a better pay deal from April – if unions accept “productivity and efficiency” reforms in return.
With paramedics and staff in the “world’s largest” nursing strike set to walk out again within days unless a deal can be struck in a clash with union leaders on Monday, the minister insisted he “[remains] ready to engage” on how the government can “support the workforce”.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Barclay said he “looked forward” to discussing with unions how any settlement on pay could be made “more affordable, where there are productivity and efficiency opportunities”.
Rishi Sunak held crunch talks in No 10 with health leaders on Saturday to discuss how to ease one of the worst crises in the 75-year history of the NHS, with delays in discharging patients partly blamed for fatal and unprecedented waits in emergency care.
It came as Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen, in an interview with The Independent, warned Mr Sunak’s waiting list pledge would fail without pay being addressed and said the upcoming strike would be the biggest of its kind in the world.
She said: “We balloted around 320,000 nursing staff and my understanding is it has been the largest ballot of nursing staff in the world and it is the largest nursing strike in the world. We’ve also increased the number of organisations [such as NHS Trusts]. There are now 70 involved. First time around it was 46.”
In his op-ed, Mr Barclay pledged to take further steps to “improve the flow through our hospitals” on Monday, when he will reportedly unveil a new scheme to expand bed capacity in hospitals and care homes.
Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on block buying thousands of care home beds, according to the Sunday Times, in a bid to free up 1,000 to 2,000 hospital beds and ease pressure on emergency services.
Government officials reportedly believe there are enough spare beds at Care Quality Commission approved facilities. It comes on top of £500m extra earmarked for social care that was announced in chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement.
The plans will also see more “virtual wards”, in which patients are “remotely monitored” in their own homes, using wearable devices, according to the Telegraph, which reports that Mr Barclay is also looking at creating more 24/7 system control centres to manage NHS capacity levels.
Mr Barclay insisted the government was “determined” to fix people’s problems and take “the country forward, rather than being stuck on repeat with the unions”.
But he appeared likely to anger striking workers as he insisted that, with less than three months left of the financial year, “we should be moving forward and having constructive conversations about what is affordable this coming year, rather than going back retrospectively” to last April.
Mr Barclay’s comments come after Ms Cullen threw down a gauntlet to Mr Barclay in saying she would be willing to “meet the government halfway” on wage negotiations – effectively cutting the union’s pay demands from 19 to 10 per cent.
Mr Sunak could end the strikes next week if he accepted such an offer, Ms Cullen told The Independent – but warned that the prime minister’s pledge for “bold and radical” action to fix the NHS crisis will fail unless he gives her members a pay rise.
The health secretary will meet with leaders from the RCN, GMB, Unite and Unison unions on Monday, ahead of a second national wave of ambulance strikes planned to take place later in the week.