Rishi Sunak has hit back at former England footballer Gary Neville over claims workers in the UK were being exploited.
The ex-Manchester United defender was criticised by leading Tory MPs after he appeared to compare the plight of workers involved in the World Cup in Qatar with the issues faced by NHS nurses.
The ITV pundit said the government sid he “detested” low pay wherever it was found and accused the Sunak government of “demonising rail workers, ambulance workers and nurses” during the channel’s World Cup 2022 final coverage.
Mr Sunak told the Daily Mail: “I think when most people are tuning in to watch Gary Neville they want to hear about the football and watch the football. They don’t want to discuss politics.”
Asked about Neville’s criticisms, the prime minister later told broadcasters: “I don’t think that’s right at all.”
“If you look at our track record and my track record, as chancellor, I’ve always done everything I can to support our NHS and indeed, the wonderful people who work in it,” Mr Sunak said.
The PM added: “I grew up in an NHS family. I spent my life working in my mum’s pharmacy when I was younger. And if you look at what we did during Covid, we provided enormous support to the frontline at a time, when it comes to pay, when everyone else in the public sector experienced a pay freeze.”
Discussing Qatar’s record on workers’ rights ahead of Sunday’s final, Neville told ITV viewers: “It’s abhorrent and we should detest low pay.”
The top pundit added: “And it is just worth mentioning that we’ve got a current government in our country who are demonising rail workers, ambulance workers and, terrifyingly, nurses.”
The former Manchester star said workers in Qatar should not have been paid an “absolute pittance” to help construct the World Cup stadia.
“That shouldn’t happen here with the wealth that exists – but it shouldn’t happen in our country where our nurses are having to fight for an extra pound or an extra two pound,” he added.
Tory MP Simon Clarke said it was “grotesque” for the high-profile Labour backer to conflate workers rights in Qatar with the UK, while former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said ITV should have cut him off.
Tory MP Lee Anderson said: “It’s a classic case of another champagne socialist who’s got more money than sense. ITV should sack him.” Responding to the MP, Neville tweeted: “I’m glad you’re p****d off! The biggest set of charlatans to ever be in power!”
Asked about the row, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “It is clearly not a legitimate or appropriate comparison in any way.”
Mr Sunak, speaking during a visit to Riga, said: “The one group that was singled out for special treatment were the NHS workers, rightly, who received that support but also beyond that for nurses, in particular, we’ve put in place nurses’ bursaries when they’re training to become nurses.”
“So look, I know things are difficult at the moment for people up and down the country with inflation. Of course I get that. That’s why we’ve put an enormous amount of support in place for people’s energy bills.”
The prime mininster also said that the government wanted to find a “sensible way through” on pay, with nurses set to strike again on Tuesday and ambulance crews set to start industrial action on Wednesday.
The government faces a series of industrial disputes with NHS staff including nurses and ambulance workers as wages fail to keep pace with high inflation.
Health secretary Steve Barclay was confronted by the mother of a three-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis about the “terrible damage” done to the NHS during a visit to a London hospital.
Mr Barclay – taken aback by her heartfelt criticism – again refused to negotiate on an improved pay deal for NHS staff.