Rishi Sunak is to offer fresh fast-tracked talks with unions over next year’s pay in a bid to end the deadlock that will see nurses walk off wards again on this month.
As part of a mini-manifesto setting out priorities on which he urged the public to judge him, the prime minister described the health service as “special”.
He said that the process for next year’s wage rise for nurses and other public sector workers was “exactly the kind of thing we should be sitting down and talking through, and it’s not just about pay.”
But nursing union leader Pat Cullen accused Mr Sunak of being “detached from the reality” of the crisis hitting the NHS.
As part of his speech Mr Sunak also ruled out cancelling non-urgent operations, one idea mooted as a solution to the chaos in Accident and Emergency departments by freeing up more beds, as he set a personal target to bring waiting lists down before the next election.
Labour attacked also his pledges, which included to halve inflation, pass legislation to stop small boats bringing migrants to the UK and raise education standards, but nothing on the ongoing NHS crisis, as the prime minister “trying to mark his own homework by setting himself a ridiculously easy exam.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith also put Mr Sunak on notice, warning that he would be judged on sorting out the “chaos of illegal asylum seekers… NHS (and) social care and that taxes must come down to grow the economy.”
It is thought Mr Sunak would not be personally involved in discussions with unions to speed up next year’s pay offers. But the prime minister wants the relevant secretaries of state to hold talks, in a bid to break the impasse.
There are fears that the process of setting rises, carried out by independent pay review bodies, can occasionally lag. Mr Sunak is thought to be keen to find a way to both recognise the hard work done by workers such as nurses, but also ensure that he meets his new inflation target. An announcement on the issue is expected shortly.
Asked about strikes after his speech Mr Sunak also criticised the pay rise called for by nurses said: “As I’ve said on pay, those conversations need to be based on what’s affordable. I think a 19% pay rise is not affordable – I don’t think anyone thinks a 19% pay rise is affordable.
“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have dialogue, shouldn’t have conversations.”
But RCN general secretary Ms Cullen, called for Mr Sunak to “show a renewed sense of urgency in opening negotiations on the current NHS pay award” to avoid strike action later this month.
Helga Pile from the health union Unison called on him to give ministers the “green light to start talking to unions about improving pay”.
The health secretary Steve Barclay has come under fire from unions in recent months for saying he is open to talks with unions but refusing to talk about this year’s pay settlement.
Mark Serwotka, the Public and Commercial Services general secretary, said: “If Rishi Sunak is serious when he says he values public sector workers, then he would give our members an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond.”
Union sources also accused the government of often being behind any lag in the pay review process.
In his speech near the Olympic Park in east London Mr Sunak also dangled the prospect of future tax cuts for workers, as he warned his vision of innovation driven growth would require hard work but deliver huge rewards.
He also pledged a revolution in the health service, including more private provision and putting patients at its heart, promised new “family hubs” to support parents and outlined plans to make maths education compulsory for all up to age 18.
A Labour Spokesperson said: “Rishi Sunak is banging on about wanting to improve education standards but here he is trying to mark his own homework by setting himself a ridiculously easy exam. We need clear leadership, not this false sense of achievement during a crisis.”
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said Mr Sunak’s speech showed he was “asleep at the wheel” over the NHS crisis.