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Top Stories: Nurses Hold "Intensive" Strike Talks With Government, Tory Brexiteers Digging In, Supermarkets Ration Veg

The RCN are set to hold "intensive talks" with ministers (Alamy)

7 min read

Ministers are set to meet with members of the Royal College of Nursing to hammer out a potential deal which could bring major NHS strike action to an end.

The nursing union said it hoped the start of "intensive talks" with Health Secretary Steve Barclay would lead to a breakthrough in the dispute as they promised to pause next week's planned 48-hour walkout.

In a joint statement, the two sides said they planned to use the talks to address "pay, terms and conditions" and "reforms to enhance productivity".

Strike action from the RCN first began in December – the first walkout in the union's history – with further strikes taking place during January.

The union agreed that the pause to next week's strike action due to the negotiations will help limit disruption in the health service because staff from previously exempt departments, such as emergency departments, cancer care and intensive care were set to join the picket line.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, said: "We will put our plans on the table, they can put their plans on the table – but I'm confident that we will come out with a fair pay settlement for our nursing staff."

The RCN had originally called for a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation, but suggested they would be willing to soften their demands in order to reach a deal.

But the health secretary's decision to speak only with the RCN has angered other unions who represent health care staff, including Unison, who said the talks would do "nothing to solve the NHS pay dispute".

Ambulance staff on strikeAmbulance drivers in Wales and north-west England are involved in strike action today, while junior doctors voted to strike, with dates in mid-March expected to be announced shortly.

News of the talks came just before the government unveiled its plans to offer a 3.5 per cent pay rise to public sector workers in the 2023/24 pay deal.

But details of the pay deal have been heavily criticised by other unions, with Rachel Harrison, national secretary for the GMB union, which represents ambulance workers and other NHS staff, calling the offer a "disgrace".

"Today's submission to the pay review body shows this government's true colours," she said in a statement. 

"Ambulance workers - and others across the NHS including cleaners, porters and care workers – who are the backbone of the health service deserve better.

"Ministers have no intention of recognising the true value of the entire workforce. It's a disgrace and will do nothing to end GMB's NHS and ambulance strikes.

She added: "This backroom deal with some sections of the workforce is a tawdry example of ministers playing divide and rule politics with people's lives."

Tory Brexiteers are digging in on Rishi Sunak's Northern Ireland Protocol deal 

Tory Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin has dismissed suggestions that a new deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could be announced this week as opposition continues to mount against the government's plans.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been engaged in extensive talks with EU leaders to renegotiate post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland. There has been some suggestion that the deal would lead the government to abandon the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill legislation, which gives ministers the power to unilaterally tear up parts of the agreement without Brussel's approval.

But Sunak's attempts to reduce trade friction have angered swathes of hardline Tory MPs and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who believe ditching the protocol legislation would significantly reduce the UK's leverage in talks with the bloc.

Asked about the prospects of a deal on Wednesday, Jenkin told Sky News it was "not very close" as he claimed negotiations were happening in "very narrow confines".

On Tuesday PoliticsHome reported that members of the Conservative Brexit group, the ERG, would meet with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss their response to Sunak's planned deal.

Jeffery Donaldson  A A senior Tory told PoliticsHome that the Prime Minister had mishandled his approach to the DUP. "There's rolling the pitch and then there's bouncing someone into something," they said. "There's a difference."

They argued that the Sunak regime had repeated the errors of former prime minister Theresa May, who was ultimately ousted over the issue of Brexit, by trying to deliver a deal with the EU without the support of the DUP, only to have the plans scuppered at the final hurdle.

"They are making the same mistakes as Theresa," said the senior Tory.

But Sunak could still get a potential deal through Parliament after Labour said they would consider voting in favour of a new arrangement, with shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry telling Sky News the PM "doesn't need to negotiate with these headbangers in the Tory Party."

Kate Forbes faces pressure to drop out of SNP leadership race

Scotland's finance minister is facing increased pressure to ditch her leadership ambitions after a series of damaging comments about her views on same-sex marriage and extra-marital sex.

Forbes, who was the bookies' favourite to succeed Nicola Sturgeon when she announced her bid on Monday, has already lost the support of four of her colleagues following her remarks about equal marriage, which she claimed she would have voted against if she had been an MSP when the bill was introduced to Holyrood in 2014.

Forbes, who is a devout Christian and member of the Free Church of Scotland, also angered members of her party after telling journalists on Tuesday that she disapproved of children being born out of wedlock.

Asked about her views on sex before marriage, she told Sky News: "It is entirely up to them. It's something that I would seek to avoid for me personally. But it doesn't fuss me, it doesn't put me up nor down. The choices that other people make is up to them."

She added: "In terms of my faith, my faith would say that sex is for marriage and that's the approach that I would practice."

Following a significant backlash to her comments, Forbes said her campaign to become SNP leader and Scotland's First Minister would continue "at the moment", leading to suggestions she could be forced to stand down before the contest ends on 27 March.

UK supermarkets forced to ration fruit and veg

Major UK supermarkets, including Asda and Morrisons, have imposed limits on purchases of some fruit and vegetables after supply issues led to significant shortages.

Poor harvests in Spain and North Africa have been blamed on a combination of cold weather and flooding, while UK farmers have said their own output has been limited by high energy prices and a lack of government support.

Speaking on Tuesday, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union, accused ministers of failing to prepare for the crisis, saying it was "seemingly ridiculous" that British growers had been excluded from the government's energy support package offered to other industries, including stationary producers.

The NFU chief had previously warned that Britain's food supply was being adversely impacted by Brexit-related workforce shortages and import rules.

But farming minister Mark Spencer blamed the shortages on "weather events in other parts of the world" as he dismissed suggestions that UK farmers had not been given enough support to fill the gaps left by imports from other countries.

The shortages are expected to last several weeks with supermarket bosses insisting limits would be lifted shortly.

Speaking to LBC, James Bailey, the executive director of Waitrose, said: "It's been snowing and hailing in Spain, it was hailing in North Africa last week and that is wiping out a large proportion of those crops.

"Give it about a fortnight and the other growing seasons in other parts of the world will have caught up and we should be able to get that supply back in."

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