LONDON – Unions representing hundreds of thousands of nurses, ambulance crews and other healthcare workers in England reached an agreement on Thursday to resolve months of disruptive strikes for higher pay, although the pact does not include doctors.
The announcement comes as junior doctors spent a third day picketing and a day after UK Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt announced a budget that did not include additional money for labor groups who staged crippling strikes amid a punishing cost-of-living crisis and double-digit inflation.
Under the deal negotiated by government officials and union leaders, workers will receive a fixed pay for the current year and a 5% raise for the next year. Any strike actions will be halted while ordinary 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, most importantly, it’s good news for the patients whose care will no longer be disrupted by the strike,” said Sunak.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing, one of five unions backing the deal, said the wage offer vindicated nurses who had taken the difficult decision to strike, forcing the government to negotiate.
“It is not a panacea, but it is real and tangible progress, and RCN member leaders are calling on nursing colleagues to support what our negotiations have secured,” said Royal College of Nursing Secretary General Pat Cullen.
Unite, the UK’s biggest union but with a smaller presence in the health field, criticized the government for months of “doubt and delay” that caused staff and patients unnecessary pain and said it would not recommend the deal but let workers vote on it.
“It is clear that this government has no regard for the interests of workers or the NHS,” said Unite Secretary General Sharon Graham. “His behavior and disdain for NHS workers and workers in general is clear in his actions. Britain has a broken economy and workers are paying the price.”
UK inflation fell to 10.1% in January, down from a 40-year high of 11.1% in October. Rising food and energy costs have left some families struggling to pay their bills.
Unions argue that wages in the public sector have failed to keep pace with rising costs. But the Conservative government has argued that public sector wage increases of 10% or more would further increase inflation.
Waves of strikes by train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border officials, driving instructors and postal workers since last summer have created chaos for residents.
Firefighters, who called off a planned strike, and London bus drivers recently struck deals to continue working. But many other professions remain locked in pay disputes. Tens of thousands of teachers, civil servants and workers on the capital’s subway system walked out of work on Wednesday.
The health worker stoppages have put pressure on the British government to suspend opposition to staffing increases in the country’s overstretched public health system. Some leaders criticized health workers for putting lives at risk, although ambulance crews responded to the most urgent calls and emergency rooms were staffed.
Health workers, including midwives and physiotherapists, have been in talks since carrying out what organizers said was the country’s biggest strike in the history of the National Health Service last month.
The labor actions echo the economic unrest that has spread across France, including over the government’s plans to raise the retirement age.
The UK’s mediocre economy is likely to avoid a recession this year, although growth is still slowing. The International Monetary Fund said last month that the country is poised 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 in the state-funded public health system, which has been plagued by winter viruses, staff shortages and delays due to the pandemic.
The deal only applies to workers in England because Scotland and Wales have semi-autonomous governments in charge of health policy.