Union chief pleads with Sunak to come to the table over nurses pay

Nurses' strikes: Jenny McGee explains importance of action

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The Royal College of Nursing general secretary said she would drop everything to hold proper talks to settle the industrial action – even on Christmas Day.

Ms Cullen agreed she did not want to “break the bank” with the pay claim and said she is willing to compromise. But she warned the government it must give ground too.

Speaking to the Daily Express on the eve of the strike, she said: “I believe now this sits now at the Prime Minister’s door.

“The only person that can actually resolve this for our nursing staff is the Prime Minister and he needs to step up now.

“He’s under pressure from his own party with more and more of his own party coming out and speaking up for the profession.”

“I want to make a direct appeal to the Prime Minister to actually start to engage,” she added.

“I think he does owe that to the people of this country because you can see that people are perplexed about this.”

Ms Cullen said she would be “at this door” within half an hour if the Prime Minister wanted to resolve the situation.

Mr Sunak yesterday insisted the government is acting “reasonably” and said “our door is always open”.

He added: “Of course we are always happy to sit down and talk to people to try and work through difficult challenges like this, that’s always been the case.

“Now, when it comes to pay, it’s because these things are difficult that we have an independent process.”

He stressed the need to “combat inflation” which is “making everybody in the UK’s life difficult”.

“Part of us doing that is having a responsible and fair approach to pay,” he added.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the union should respect the independence of the NHS pay review body, which has set pay for nurses at about £1,400 more a year, at least a four percent rise.

The RCN has asked for inflation plus five percent, which would mean a settlement of around 19 percent.

It is simply asking for a “decent pay rise so that the nurses can manage to live a decent life, that is all”, Ms Cullen said.

The union boss insisted she wants to “get round the table” but warned “there has to be compromise here on both parts”. 

She said: “I would love the opportunity to get to the table and set out my position honestly and realistically and government have the opportunity to set out their position. 

“I have always said I will not dig in if they don’t dig in. I don’t think we would be unrealistic in knowing that there has to be compromise here on both parts.

“So just just get us to the table. But bringing me to a table on behalf of the 320,000 nurses that have taken part in this ballot and setting a red line as soon as we walk in the door to say we’re not talking about pay is wrong.

“That’s going to get us nowhere. And in six months time we are still going to find those nurses are outside their hospitals instead of inside. 

“I know I will have to negotiate. Compromise as another step but I’ll have to definitely negotiate it. That’s what life is about. But I can’t even get that opportunity for those nurses at this point in time.”

Ms Cullen said she had not received any contact from the government ahead of today’s walkout.

The RCN, is the largest professional nursing trade union in the world, and has never taken such action in its history.

But Ms Cullen said nurses feel “totally abandoned and let down”.

“It’s never our intention as a Royal College to be militant but we do have to have a voice for nursing,” she said.

Reports emerged at the weekend that Mr Barclay had been considering a one-off payment for nurses to settle the dispute but had been blocked by the Prime Minister – something Downing Street denied.

Ms Cullen said the RCN had not been approached about the possibility but said she does not see a “hush money” quick fix payment as the right solution because nurses “deserve more”.

But she said “anything that he puts on the table I will come round the table and discuss with him”.

“I think what we’re seeing is maybe a slight shift in the government’s position,” she said.

Talks between Ms Cullen and Mr Barclay last Monday ahead of the first walkout quickly collapsed.

She said the meeting had been “disappointing” because the Cabinet minister immediately ruled out discussing pay.

“We went in with real optimism,” she said. “As soon as we got into the room, it was very clear that he was not going to budge. And he made that very clear within the first five minutes.

“That was probably my most downtime during all of this. I thought gosh, this is not going to happen for these people and I felt really I had let them down.”

Ms Cullen said nurses kept the country going through the covid pandemic.

“These are the people that moved out of their own homes and stayed away from their own family so that they wouldn’t infect their patients and then wouldn’t infect their families on their return.

“But then to say that they are only worth £1,400 is a government that is really out of touch with the public.”

The government has insisted that it cannot give nurses extra pay because that would take money away from frontline services, such as elective surgery backlogs.

But Ms Cullen said that was a “non argument” because the only way to bring down waiting lists is to have enough nurses.

Data collected by the NHS after last week’s nursing strike showed that 16,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries were cancelled and needed to be rescheduled in England – 54,000 less than the Government suggested.

Across England, 9,999 staff were absent from work due to the strike.

The RCN has a six month mandate from its members for industrial action.

Ms Cullen said: “I am so so sorry to every patient that’s had their treatment delayed as a result of nurses having to take strike action. That’s wrong. Nurses shouldn’t have to take strike action and patients shouldn’t have to have their treatments cancelled. That’s just so wrong. 

“This is in the government’s hands and this shouldn’t continue for another six hours, nevermind six months.”

Mr Barclay insisted pay has to be balanced “between what is affordable to the economy as a whole”.

“Any disruption to patients in terms of operations being cancelled is deeply regrettable and that’s why it’s important that we get back to talks, we look at the range of issues that are impacting on nursing, the consequences of the pandemic, and how we work together in the interests of patients.”

A health source said: “Steve has made every effort to talk to the RCN and has heard Pat Cullen set out her union’s demand for a 19 percent pay increase in full.

“The Health and Social Care Secretary hugely values the work of nurses, who do a fantastic job. But in these challenging times, the country simply cannot afford the inflation-busting pay hikes the unions are asking for.

“He wants a constructive dialogue with the RCN about how we can make the NHS a better place to work.”

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