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Cabinet Minister Says Nurses’ Pay Rise Demand Is A “High Ask” After Strikes Announced

Nurses have voted for strike action over pay and safety concerns (Alamy)

4 min read

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said that nurses’ demand for a 17 per cent pay rise is a “high ask” after members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union voted to go on strike for the first time.

He also said it was "unfair" to ask if nurses should get paid as much as politicians, although he suggested both professions could be seen as “vocations”.

NHS nurses across the UK will hold strikes before the end of the year after a record number of RCN members voted for industrial action over salary levels and patient safety concerns.

It would be their first nationwide strike in the union's 106-year history, and would affect the majority of NHS employers in the UK, but the RCN has promised to maintain emergency and critical care.

They are protesting over a below-inflation payrise, meaning that wages will go down in real-terms. Earlier this year, most NHS staff were granted a pay increase of £1,400, but are instead calling for a 17 per cent pay increase – 5 per cent above the predicted rate of inflation. 

Speaking to Sky News on Thursday, Heaton-Harris deflected criticism of government spending on NHS wages, and pointed to the fact that nurses' pay is set by an independent body. 

He said that "everybody" would like to see NHS staff across the board receive a pay rise but felt the 17 per cent demand from the RCN was a "a high ask".

"Nurses, doctors, everybody in the NHS went that extra mile during the time of the pandemic," he explained. 

"They were the only group of people who got a pay rise in the public sector in the pandemic, 3 per cent pay rise.

"The ask of the RCN at 17 per cent, is a high ask. I believe even Labour say they can't afford that."

Heaton-Harris added that "it's very difficult to judge" whether nurses are paid enough, despite numerous reports of staff using food banks, or leaving the workforce for higher paid jobs. 

“I know it's a vocation, I suppose you could say politics is a vocation in many ways," he continued. 

Nurses earn an average of £34,000 per year, compared to an MP's salary of £84,144. A secretary of state such as Heaton-Harris can claim an addition £67,505. 

He protested that "some people wouldn't want to pay politicians anything," when asked if nurses should earn as much as MPs. 

"I think that's an unfair question because we're in completely different places,” he added. 

The RCN argues that 17 per cent is a fair increase, pointing to recent analysis showing that an experienced nurse's salary has fallen by 20 per cent in real terms since 2010, saying nurses are working the equivalent of one day a week for nothing.

Patricia Marquis, the union’s director for England, told BBC Breakfast the industrial action, set to take place before the end of the year, was also about the fact current NHS services were "not safe" and the government has "failed to listen" to what nursing staff have been saying.

She said there are some services that need to continue during strike action to keep patients safe "and we will agree with employers what those are and which staff should be working".

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents most NHS organisations, told the BBC that hospitals will do all they can to "minimise harm to patients" if nurses go on strike, but admitted operations and appointments will have to be cancelled or postponed.

"Clearly industrial action is a challenge for the health service and NHS leaders," he said. 

"We're already coping with the gap that exists between the demand that is currently on the health service from the public. We've got to meet that demand, and we all know that we are heading into what already is a very difficult winter.

"Then we add industrial action into that and it's going to be an extremely difficult job. The priority will be to try to minimise patient harm."

Taylor said although the industrial action is primarily about pay, "it's important to understand that, whenever you speak to nurses, they will say pay is part of the challenge but it's also about workload, about the fact that there are nearly 50,000 nurse vacancies across the NHS”.

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