Boris Johnson has claimed ministers gave NHS workers “as much as we can” as the angry backlash over the government’s proposed 1% pay rise offer continues.
Speaking on a visit to a vaccination centre in Brent in north London, the prime minister would not be drawn on whether he would perform a U-turn over the proposed hike in pay for healthcare staff, who have been on the frontline during the Covid pandemic.
Nurses and other staff who could be affected by the “insulting” rise were preparing to protest outside Downing Street, in London, and in Manchester, on Sunday afternoon.
Pressed on the issue, Johnson said: “I’m massively grateful to all NHS staff and indeed to social care workers who have been heroic throughout the pandemic.
“What we have done is try to give them as much as we can at the present time.
“The independent pay review body will obviously look at what we’ve proposed and come back.”
Asked if ministers could be forced into a U-turn over the pay offer, which is being looked at by an independent pay review board, Johnson said: “Don’t forget that there has been a public sector pay freeze, we’re in pretty tough times.
“We’ve tried to give the NHS as much as we possibly can and that means, in addition to the £140 billion of annual money, we’ve got another £62 billion we’ve found to help support the NHS throughout the crisis.
“My gratitude is overwhelming and I’m so grateful particularly to the nurses, and thankfully we are seeing more nurses now in our amazing NHS – there are 10,000 more nurses this year than there were last year.”
Speaking earlier on Sunday, education secretary Gavin Williamson said the offer was “part of a process”, suggesting the government could rethink the rise.
Shown a video of prime minister Boris Johnson and Sunak clapping for carers during the pandemic, as hospitals and care homes were struggling to cope with the pandemic, BBC One presenter Andrew Marr put it to Williamson that the minuscule hike was “frankly an insult” to staff.
“What we are having to deal with is incredibly challenging economic circumstances,” the education secretary said.
“We have put forward a proposal. We have put forward what we believe that we can afford and it’s part of a process and that will sort of be looked at.
“But really, our focus is on making sure we recover from this pandemic.”
Pressed on a possible U-turn, he added: “We’ve stated that this is very much part of the process – what the government has put forward has been passed to an independent review.”
The “insulting” pay rise, reportedly insisted on by chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Treasury department, has provoked widespread anger.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the prime minister of breaking his promise to NHS staff by defending the government’s 1% pay rise proposal.
“Boris Johnson promised NHS staff at least 2.1%,” he said.
“He budgeted for that and Tory MP legislated for that budget.
“He’s now broken his promise and is instead cutting nurses’ pay.
“It’s time he U-turned.”
Sara Gorton, head of health at the health union Unison, said the PM “of all people should appreciate the skill and dedication of NHS staff”.
She added: “He should admit swiftly his government has got this very wrong and think again.
“NHS staff are demoralised and exhausted from the pandemic. They mustn’t pay the price for the failure to resource the health service properly over the past decade.”
The British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and Unison have said in a letter to ministers that the pay deal “fails the test of honesty and fails to provide staff who have been on the very frontline of the pandemic the fair pay deal they need”.
The letter adds: “Our members are the doctors, nurses, midwives, porters, healthcare assistants and more, already exhausted and distressed, who are also expected to go on caring for the millions of patients on waiting lists, coping with a huge backlog of treatment as well as caring for those with Covid-19.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.