UK ministers have invited health unions representing ambulance workers, physiotherapists and other NHS staff to formal pay discussions, in a push to avert further strikes.
The Department of Health and Social Care said on Thursday that it had invited the NHS staff council, which includes all health unions, to join “intensive talks” to reach a “fair and reasonable” deal, but only on condition that all planned strike action was called off “with immediate effect”.
The invitation follows a threat from the GMB union to escalate action by ambulance workers, who may now respond to only the most serious category-one calls during two days of walkouts scheduled for next week.
Ambulance staff represented by the Unite union are set to strike alongside the GMB on Monday, while Unison, the biggest public sector union, has called out nurses, blood collection workers, porters, cleaners and paramedics on Wednesday.
Ministers began pay talks last week with the Royal College of Nursing, which paused its own planned stoppages as a result. But other trade groups criticised the move, warning that pursuing a deal with just one part of the NHS workforce risked worsening strains in industrial relations.
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said on Thursday that unions would “need to clarify the basis upon which talks can get under way through the NHS staff council” before deciding whether to call off strikes and accept the invitation. They would also need to understand “the status of the unilateral talks” with the RCN.
The NHS staff council brings together health unions, DHSC, NHS employers and NHS England. Although ministers take decisions on pay following advice from the health service’s pay review body, the staff council is the forum where other workforce issues are usually discussed.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents groups across the healthcare sector, described the government’s invitation as an “olive branch”. “We need to bring an end to this war of attrition we have seen over the past few months and get back on track,” he said.
In practice, however, trade groups will want assurances that their members will receive the same pay offer as nurses represented by the RCN and that ministers are prepared to discuss a significant improvement in the pay awards for 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Ministers last week made a similar offer of pay talks to teaching unions, but walkouts in schools across England have gone ahead this week after the National Education Union said it had not received assurances that ministers could make a significant move on pay.
Separately, junior doctors on Thursday said they were “frustrated and hugely disappointed” after Steve Barclay told them he had no mandate to negotiate over pay.
Following a meeting with the health secretary, Rob Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi, leaders of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, said he “did not or could not offer any kind of deal” without the say of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
DHSC said Barclay had reiterated that the government was “happy to continue discussing what is fair and affordable”.
Elsewhere, Royal Mail and the CWU union said they would enter a new process of talks, facilitated by Brendan Barber, former chair of Acas, the government-funded conciliation service.
The two sides said the discussions, aimed at ending an intractable pay dispute, would cover pay, “changes required to secure the future” of the postal group and other issues.