Rishi Sunak’s government is refusing to negotiate a settlement to the NHS pay dispute because it is “looking to privatise” the health service, a union leader has claimed.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham made the claim as she lashed out at ministers for refusing to get round the table to resolve the current year’s pay row ahead of fresh strike action on Monday.
“I think they are looking to privatise the NHS,” she told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “Genuinely, I believe they are looking that this is the moment they can privatise the NHS.”
“There is something unusual going on here, that they will not come to the table,” said Ms Graham, “There is not a problem about paying – we’re the fifth richest country in the world. There is something going on here, otherwise they are at a level of incompetence not known.”
Thousands of members of Unison, Unite and the GMB unions are set to walk out across England and Wales on Monday as part of continued industrial action in the health service.
Up to 15,000 Unison ambulance workers will strike for the third time in five weeks and will be joined by 5,000 of their NHS colleagues at two hospital trusts in Liverpool.
Ms Graham described Rishi Sunak as being “missing in action” on the pay row. In what appeared to be a sign of deteriorating relations between the government and unions, she also accused his ministers of “lying” and not being “an honest partner at the other side of the table”.
She said: “I’m negotiating with somebody at the moment that I don’t think wants resolution, and that’s a real problem.”
The Unite leader said a double-digit pay rise must be offered to striking NHS staff, as she accused the government of not being an honest negotiating partner.
She indicated a 10 per cent pay rise would be considered by union members, insisting Labour should show “real leadership” by coming out and stating that is what it would offer if it was the party in power.
Speaking to broadcasters during a hospital visit last week, health secretary Steve Barclay appeared to rule out a 10 per cent pay rise for nurses, insisting it was “not affordable”.
Ms Graham said the government must offer a double-digit pay rise instead of “dancing round their handbags”, adding: “I think it’s really clear that what we’re talking about is a double-digit pay rise. That’s what we’re talking about.
“The RCN have already said they’d meet them halfway. I don’t know how many more hints do they want to take on that? … If they came in the room, and they offered a double-digit pay rise, we would take that back to our members and our members would make the decision.”
Ahead of Monday’s strikes, NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said the message to patients remained that it is vital to come forward and seek emergency care if needed during strike action on Monday.
“This includes calling 999 for life-threatening emergencies as well as using 111 online for other health needs where you will receive clinical advice on the best next steps to take,” he said.
“People should also continue to use local services such as pharmacies and general practice as they normally would which aren’t impacted by strike action.”
It comes ahead of widespread walkouts on 6 February, likely to see the biggest strike action the NHS has ever experienced, with thousands of nurses and ambulance workers due to stage walkouts if no deal has been reached by then.