The proposed 1% pay rise for NHS staff is a “slap in the face” and large numbers of nurses could quit after the pandemic, a union has warned as pressure grows on the government over the row.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the 1% offer had reinforced some of their members’ belief “that they are not valued by either the government or perhaps some of the public”.
NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England, said a long-term plan set out by the government assumed a pay rise of more than 2% for healthcare workers in 2021/22, claiming it was “enshrined in law”.
And in a sign that a Conservative rebellion may be brewing, a former Tory health minister said it was the “wrong time” to be restraining the pay of NHS workers who have gone “above and beyond” during the pandemic.
As tensions have risen, the RCN has set up a £35m industrial action fund – threatening to take strike action – while another union has urged the public to support a slow hand clap next week mocking the proposals.
Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s South East regional director, said there was a “real risk” that “significant numbers of experienced, expert nurses will see the end of the pandemic (and think) that enough is enough”.
She told Times Radio: “We know there are significant numbers who are planning to leave and this slap in the face from the government really has just reinforced their belief that they are not valued by either the government or perhaps some of the public in the way they would want to be.”
Ms Marquis said there were 40,000 nursing vacancies in England when the country went into the pandemic and people were working to cover those roles.
She added that going on strike was “certainly” on the minds of RCN members but that was not the first option and she did not think this would happen during the pandemic.
NHS Providers has said it is “absolutely wrong” for ministers to renege on a pay rise that it calculated had already been budgeted for.
Its deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery told Sky News: “This pay rise was baked into what was promised to the NHS, and is set out as part of the revenue settlement, which is an act of parliament now – the NHS Funding Act 2020.
“So it’s really enshrined in law that there should be a pay rise of 2.1%.”
Tory MP Dr Dan Poulter, a former health minister who has been assisting on the NHS front line during the pandemic, called for a rethink on the 1% proposal.
He said it is “very valid” for ministers to turn their attention to paying back the £400bn borrowed during the coronavirus crisis – but it is the “wrong time to be making this decision”.
The MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that many NHS staff worked “without the right equipment to protect themselves” in the early part of the pandemic and they had “gone above and beyond the hours they are already paid for”.
He added: “For me, this is, from a moral perspective, the wrong time to be applying pay restraint.”
Dr Poulter called on ministers to accept whatever the health service pay review body recommends in terms of a salary increase, and argued it would be “counterproductive economically to squeeze permanent wages” as it has caused the NHS agency bill to balloon in the past.
Senior Tory backbenchers Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Percy are among those to have broken ranks to criticise the 1% decision in recent days.
Labour has argued the pay recommendation amounts to a “real terms cut” to wages given that the Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting inflation will rise to 1.5% in the coming year.
Shadow health minister Alex Norris said the bid to “balance the budget” on the back of an NHS pay reduction seems “a very strange set of priorities”.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday evening, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said NHS staff had been “carved out” of a pay freeze affecting other public sector employees, adding affordability had to be taken into account when deciding pay.
“We have set out what is affordable given the very significant challenges in public finances,” he said, referring to the impact of the pandemic.