The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has agreed to discuss the possibility of a lump sum payment or backdating pay in order to end NHS strikes, according to multiple sources, though strikes will go ahead for nurses and ambulance staff next week.
Though health unions publicly attacked the talks as disappointing, both union and government sources acknowledged a significant change in approach and that the government would be prepared to ease the pain staff were experiencing because of the cost of living.
Unison’s Sara Gorton said Barclay accepted that health workers would have to be offered more pay as part of the settlement for this year, 2022-23, despite having insisted for weeks that the pay deal was closed.
“The secretary of state is very, very clear that resolving this dispute means not just talking about pay for the next period but actually pay for the current year. So very clear that resolving the dispute will take boosting pay ahead of 1 April,” she said.
Gorton also said Barclay asked the unions him to help him make the case to the Treasury for health getting more investment. “We’ll certainly do that,” she said.
The government is understood to be considering offering a one-off payment to health workers, possibly in the form of a hardship payment to get them through this winter.
That offer was not made to unions in the meeting, but a government source said Barclay had made clear he was willing to take away the possibility of a lump sum or of backdated pay for 2022-23 into the next round of pay talks for next year.
But a series of strikes is to go ahead after the talks, which unions criticised for having nothing new on the table.
Union sources were scathing about Barclay’s apparent failure to offer any of his own new ideas on how to break the deadlock.
“No cash offer made [for 2022-23], [and] nothing concrete for 2023-24. Madness,” said a source at one union, who said they did not understand why the government had invited union representatives for talks about pay but then apparently made no new suggestions.
Elaine Sparkes, an assistant director at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said Barclay brought “nothing tangible” to the meeting in terms of ideas or initiatives to try and end the impasse over NHS staff’s pay rise for 2022-23.
“Although the meeting was more constructive this time, there is nothing tangible on the table,” she said. “As such, we’ll be announcing the first of our strike dates later this week as we continue to push for a fairer deal for our members and their colleagues.”
A Whitehall source said the talks had been “useful and constructive” and that there was more common ground. They said the government was taking “a new approach in the past few days” but said Barclay wanted to have an open conversation about productivity and efficiency.
They said that would mean a more generous pay settlement if more money could be found through savings. “There will be more money available if we can work together.”
Unite, one of the unions involved in the talks, said the terms put forward by the government were “an insult to our members”. The union’s Onay Kasab said the talks had not gone well. “Unfortunately the government has missed another opportunity to put this right,” he told broadcasters.
“What they want to talk about is productivity. Productivity when our members are working 18-hour shifts – quite how you become more productive with that, I do not know.”
Asked whether there was discussion of a one-off payment, Kasab said: “All the government are interested in is saying that in order to justify a payment, then we need to come up with productivity savings in the NHS. That is absolutely ludicrous. This isn’t a factory we’re talking about.
“We are talking about people who are working well beyond their contracted hours anyway just to get the job done because they can’t hand patients over and because they care so much. So the government to be talking about productivity in exchange for a [payment] is an insult to every single one of our members.”
The Royal College of Nursing branded the talks “bitterly disappointing” and said that government “intransigence” was increasing the likelihood of next week’s nurses’ strikes going ahead.
“There is no resolution to our dispute yet in sight. Today’s meeting was bitterly disappointing – nothing for the current year and repeating that ‘the budget is already set’ for next year,” said Joanne Galbraith-Marten, the RCN’s director of employment relations and legal services.
“This intransigence is letting patients down. Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike.”
Downing Street said the government was taking a “new approach” by discussing pay and was prepared to go further than before on providing financial support to help struggling workers now.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “We recognise that despite those high [pay] awards this year, global economic headwinds are putting household budgets under pressure.
“The prime minister has said we are happy to listen to those concerns and discuss what is responsible and affordable for the country.”
Pressed by reporters over whether that could include extra financial help now, even though this year’s pay settlement would not be reopened, they added: “We are willing to listen to the unions if they want to put forward what they believe is fair and reasonable. Likewise we will provide detail about what we think is affordable.”
Ambulance workers in England and Wales are planning to strike for 24 hours on Wednesday, while action by nurses is scheduled for 18 and 19 January.