LONDON – Unions representing hundreds of thousands of nurses, paramedics and other healthcare workers in England reached an agreement on Thursday to resolve months of disruptive strikes for higher pay, although the pact no does not include doctors.
The announcement came as early career medics spent a third day on picket lines and the day after Britain’s Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt announced a budget that included no extra money for labor groups that have staged crippling strikes amid a cost-of-living crisis and double-digit inflation.
Under the agreement negotiated by government officials and union leaders, workers will receive a lump sum payment for the current year and a 5% increase next year. All strike action will be halted while rank and file members vote on the deal.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the pact rewards hardworking National Health Service staff who persevered during the covid-19 pandemic and prevents further work stoppages.
“This offer is good for NHS staff, it’s good for the taxpayer and above all it’s good news for patients whose care will no longer be disrupted by the strike,” Sunak said.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing, one of five unions backing the deal, said the pay offer vindicated nurses who made the difficult decision to go on strike, forcing the government to negotiate.
“It is not a panacea, but it is real and tangible progress, and RCR member leaders are calling on their fellow nurses to support what our negotiations have achieved,” said the Royal College of Nursing secretary-general , Pat Cullen.
Unite, the UK’s biggest union but with less presence in healthcare, blasted the government for months of ‘quibbles and delays’ which caused unnecessary pain for staff and patients and said that he would not recommend the deal but let the workers vote on it.
“It is clear that this government does not have the interests of workers or the NHS at heart,” said Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “Their behavior and disregard for NHS workers and workers in general is evident from their actions. Britain has a broken economy and workers are paying the price.”
UK inflation fell to 10.1% in January from a 40-year high of 11.1% in October. Soaring food and energy prices have left some households struggling to pay their bills.
Unions say public sector wages have not kept pace with soaring costs. But the Conservative government has argued that public sector wage increases of 10% or more will lead to even higher inflation.
Since last summer, waves of strikes by train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving instructors and postal workers have taken their toll on residents.
Firefighters, who called off a planned strike, and London bus drivers recently reached agreements to continue working. But many other professions remain locked in wage disputes. Tens of thousands of teachers, civil servants and metro workers in the capital all went on strike on Wednesday.
The health worker walkouts have pressured the UK government to lift its opposition to staff increases in the country’s overburdened public health system. Some leaders criticized healthcare workers for putting lives at risk, although paramedics said they responded to the most urgent calls and emergency rooms were staffed.
Healthcare workers, including midwives and physiotherapists, had been in talks since staging what organizers called the biggest strike in the history of the country’s National Health Service last month .
The industrial actions echo the economic unrest that has spread in France, particularly over government plans to raise the retirement age.
The lackluster UK economy is expected to avoid a recession this year, although growth will continue to contract. The International Monetary Fund said last month that the country was on course to be the only major economy to contract this year, performing even worse than sanctions-hit Russia.
A ratified deal with nurses and others will ease some of the pain for the publicly funded public health care system, which has been beset by winter viruses, staffing shortages and backlogs from the pandemic.
The deal only applies to workers in England as Scotland and Wales have semi-autonomous governments in charge of health policy.