At the end of talks over next year’s pay deal for NHS workers, which broke up without resolution on Monday, union negotiators told Steve Barclay: “You know we’re going ahead with strikes?” One of those in the room said the health secretary shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “I accept that,” he told them.
But the fact ministers sat down with unions to discuss pay at all is, in itself, a breakthrough. For weeks the government has been indicating that, while it would meet unions to avert further strikes, reopening this year’s pay deal was not an option.
In an interview with the Daily Mail on a flight back from the Baltics just before Christmas, Rishi Sunak implied it was too late to improve the pay offer for 2022-23, saying that the financial year was “basically finished”.
Both the prime minister and Jeremy Hunt were understood to feel demonstrating pay restraint would show they were serious about the Tory party winning back a reputation for economic competence – even though a one-off payment for striking nurses was popular with the public.
“Sometimes doing the popular thing isn’t the right thing,” one insider said. “If we give the nurses more, then it will be the teachers next. It opens up the floodgates to pay rises across the board.”
Barclay, striving to reach a compromise, was said to have proposed a one-off flat-rate payment, which was rejected by the Treasury and No 10. The prime minister was not for turning.
Yet within weeks, with the NHS in crisis – including on the days without any strikes – and public support for industrial action holding firm, the pressure on the government to change its approach was mounting.
The prime minister kicked off the new year with a speech at the Olympic Park. In the Q&A afterwards, he hinted pay deals could be on the table for next year. So what changed?
Downing Street insiders claimed there was no single moment where it dawned on Sunak that he would have to act. Instead, they claimed, he was always open to talks as long as unions were realistic about it being affordable and fair. He was aware, they said, that the impasse could not continue and they had to get round a table.
The government was not the only one shifting. Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said they could be willing to accept a 10% pay rise – branded “unreasonable and unaffordable” – calling on ministers to meet them halfway.
The next day, Barclay wrote to health unions inviting them for the talks on the pay deal for 2023-24 this week.
No 10 admitted it was taking a “new approach” by discussing pay and, while indicating that reopening the 2022-23 deal was not an option, conceded it was prepared to discuss providing extra financial support now.
In the event, the unions suggested a one-off payment and backdating next year’s pay deal to January just gone. Barclay said he would speak to the Treasury. Usually, that means that a deal is not on the cards. This time, however, there are early signs the purse strings could be loosened on a one-off basis.
Unions, however, are unhappy about any extra cash being linked to productivity targets. Health unions will be meeting Barclay again later this week. Some Conservatives are asking why it has taken the government so long, arguing more strikes could have been avoided.
Some suggest political naivety played a role. One Tory MP said: “You could see a mile off that they’d have to strike a deal with nurses. The public are on their side. The stories coming out of hospitals are horrible. It was a no brainer and it was naive not to realise it.”