The Health Secretary has warned that planned industrial action by nurses next week will cause “significant risks” to patients as a union called for Steve Barclay to enter pay talks.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has offered to “press pause” on the planned strike action if Mr Barclay agreed to negotiate properly on pay.
But in an editorial for the Sun on Sunday, the Health Secretary criticised the planned strikes amid serious pressures on the NHS.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, whose members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 20, said that she was willing to press pause on the walkout by thousands of nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland if Mr Barclay agreed to come to the table and discuss a deal on pay demands.
The Department of Health said the Health Secretary’s “door remains open for further talks”, but did not say whether pay would now be on the table.
Labour called it an “offer the Government can’t refuse”.
It came as Mr Barclay warned: “In a winter when we’re worrying about Covid, flu and Strep A – on top of the Covid backlogs – I am deeply concerned about the risks of strike action to patients.”
“We are working hard to make sure patients experience as little disruption as possible. But with the NHS already under pressure due to the Covid pandemic and coming winter, the risks to patients will be significant,” he wrote in the Sun on Sunday.
The RCN this week accused Mr Barclay of refusing to properly negotiate on pay, with Ms Cullen suggesting the Health Secretary has deployed “bullyboy” tactics against a largely female workforce.
“Negotiate with nurses and avoid this strike,” Ms Cullen said over the weekend.
“Five times my offer to negotiate has been turned down.
“I will press pause on it when the Health Secretary says he will negotiate seriously on our dispute this year.
“That means each of us giving some ground. He gains nothing by ignoring the representatives of the NHS workforce.
“The public blames Government for this dire situation, and they have to face up to it. A swift change of tactics will pay off for all concerned.”
Unison has indicated that it would consider deals similar to those that led to the suspension of strikes in Scotland, if the Health Secretary sat down and discussed pay.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Rather than scare the public about the consequences of strikes, the Health Secretary should table genuine plans for improving wages.
“Sitting down with health unions and improving the pay on offer has put strikes on hold across Scotland.
“If Steve Barclay were to mirror Holyrood’s approach and commit to boosting wages this year, the threat of pre-Christmas strikes could well be lifted.”
The strike will cause major disruption to the NHS in the run-up to Christmas, with ambulance workers also set to strike on December 21.
Nurses and other nursing staff will take action at half of the locations in England where the legal mandate was reached for strikes, every NHS employer except one in Wales and throughout Northern Ireland.
The RCN has said that despite this year’s pay award of £1,400, experienced nurses are worse off by 20% in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.
The union has been calling for a pay rise of 5% above RPI inflation.
The Health Secretary has repeatedly insisted that the concerns raised by trade unions are not simply about pay and said that the Government was moving to improve conditions for workers in other areas.
He has said several times that his “door remains open” for talks with the unions, but nurses’ representatives have complained that he is not engaging in pay talks.
In response to the latest offer from the unions, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “NHS workers do an incredible job caring for our loved ones and it is disappointing some will be taking industrial action, ahead of a difficult winter.
“Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN and Unison, on how we can make the NHS a better place to work – and have been clear the door remains open for further talks.
“These are extremely challenging times, we have accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full – this means newly qualified nurses have had a 5.5% increase and those on the lowest salaries, such as porters and cleaners, have received a pay rise of up to 9.3%.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called it “an offer the Government can’t refuse”.
He tweeted that the two trade unions had “been clear that there is a deal to be done, but the Government must be prepared to negotiate”.
“It’s time they put patients before Tory politics,” he added.