Oliver Dowden Claims Nurses’ Pay Rises Are "Not Affordable" As Unions Warn Of Further Strikes
Nurses could be asked to take further strike action in January unless ministers agree to discuss increased pay deals (Alamy)
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden has insisted the government's door is "always open" for union talks, but refused to budge over pay rises for nurses.
Speaking on Sunday, Dowden urged NHS workers to "call off" their strikes ahead of further planned walkouts by nurses and ambulance drivers.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing are set to strike on 20 December having already taken action on 15 December, while ambulance staff in England and Wales are set to strike on 21 and 28 December.
Ambulance workers and nurses have been offered pay rises of around 4.75 per cent by independent pay review bodies, but union leaders have said the increase would represent a real terms pay cut due to inflation rates running at more than 10 per cent.
Speaking to the BBC's Laura Kuenessberg, Dowden urged the unions to call off the strikes, saying increased pay offers would be made once public finances were stronger.
"We help to get the economy stronger, we get the economy growing, then we can afford the kind of pay rises we desperately want to give people," he said.
And he claimed that current pay demands from nursing unions of around 19 per cent were "simply not affordable" as he repeated disputed claims that caving to pay demands from striking public sector workers would cost households £1,000 a year to fund the increases.
Explaining the figure, Dowden said: "We have taken the level of inflation, which is currently at 10 or 11 per cent, and we have projected that forward for next year, because that is what you would expect it to apply, and that would give £1,000 for every family if we matched that for the public sector."
Ministers have repeatedly faced criticism over the figure because of the government's decision to use one month of inflation data to create the projection rather than taking an average inflation rate, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimating the actual total would be around half of the government's current claimed figure.
But the comments prompted criticism from Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation, who said it "does seem as though the door is shut by the government when it comes to this question of pay".
But union leaders warned over the weekend that a major wave of further strike action could take place in the New Year, with "more hospitals and more nurses taking part than at present".
In an ultimatum to ministers, the Royal College of Nursing said its members would be asked to consider further disputes in January with nursing staff offering "less generous" support inside hospitals unless the government reopened negotiations on pay by Thursday.
Pat Cullen, the union's general secretary, said: "The government should get this wrapped up by Christmas. January's strikes, if they are forced to go ahead, will see more hospitals and more nurses taking part than at present – 2023 needs to be a fresh start for all, not more of the same."
She added: "Ministers can take away the worries of nurses who are expecting to start the year with such uncertainty.
"We aren't looking for a miracle, it is in their gift to solve it."
According to The Observer, Treasury and health department officials have already begun examining options for ending the strikes, including possibly offering staff a one-off lump sum payment to boost pay packets.
Meanwhile, contingency plans are being stepped up to protect essential services during winter, with around 1,200 members of the military and 1,000 civil servants expected to be drafted in to limit disruption.
Military personnel will be asked to drive ambulances during strike days and also man border checkpoints during walkouts by Border Force staff over the Christmas period.
The use of military staff has already prompted criticism from union leaders, with Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison union, saying the military were "no subsitute" for trained ambulance staff, warning they would only be able to respond to less urgent calls and would not have the training required to exceed speed limits or drive through red lights.
And Admiral Tony Radakin, head of the armed forces, said it was "perilous" to routinely expect military staff to cover for striking workers, saying they should be left to "focus on our primary role".
But writing in the Sun on Sunday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attacked union leaders, and accused the leaders of rail unions of attempting to "steal Christmas" after their decision to press ahead with a wave of walkouts during December.
"Even Labour have admitted the unions' demands are unaffordable. But they'll still take union money and undermine the interests of the travelling public," he wrote.
"Labour back the Grinches that want to steal Christmas for their own political ends.We are doing everything we can to ensure people get the Christmas they deserve.
"The army is stepping up and we're putting in place other measures to keep services running where possible."
He added: "The unions are causing misery for millions, with transport strikes in particular cruelly timed to hit at Christmas.
“Rail workers and border officers have been offered deals that are fair – and affordable to taxpayers."
But shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said Sunak's comments proved the government were "spoiling for a fight" with unions as he called for them to offer a "constructive solution" to the disputes.
"I think the government needs to stop all the rhetoric, the empty posturing and sowing the seeds of division and actually now needs to start finding a constructive solution so that we can get people back to work in a way where they feel valued and where they feel that there is a real future of them in those jobs."
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe