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Sunak accused of ‘abdication of leadership’ during NHS pay dispute

A mass walkout of NHS staff in February could be a “very bad day” for the health service, unions have warned, as they urged the Prime Minister to act to avert the biggest strike action the NHS has ever experienced.

Unite said that Health Secretary Steve Barclay “does not have authority” to negotiate pay deals as it urged Rishi Sunak to call a meeting with union leaders.

The union said the Prime Minister had been “missing in action” during the dispute, and accused him of an “abdication of leadership”.

It comes as thousands of ambulance workers are staging the third strike in five weeks in the bitter dispute over pay.

Up to 15,000 Unison ambulance workers are on picket lines and have been joined by up to 5,000 of their NHS colleagues at two hospital trusts in Liverpool.

Further strikes are planned in the coming weeks by nurses and other NHS workers.

Thousands of nurses and ambulance workers are due to stage walkouts on February 6 if no deal has been reached by then – potentially the biggest day of strikes in the history of the health service.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, told LBC radio: “There’s many, many days between now and February 6, and I hope the Government come to their senses, get the general secretaries around the table – we will be there any time, any place, anywhere – and do this deal.

“So, I really hope that February 6 doesn’t go ahead because the Government puts an offer on the table.

“If they don’t do that, of course it will go ahead (and) it will be a very bad day for the NHS, everybody will feel that.”

Mr Barclay has described “constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process for 2023/24”, but unions have been calling for the 2022/23 pay award to be reviewed.

Ambulance workers on the picket line outside Royal Liverpool University Hospital in Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA)
Ambulance workers on the picket line outside Royal Liverpool University Hospital in Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA)

Ms Graham added: “The Prime Minister is missing in action.

“There has been not one meeting that has been about 22/23 pay and, quite frankly, we’re almost negotiating with the Government on the airways (sic).

“So, therefore, what I’m calling on today is for Rishi Sunak to come out of hiding, to do his job as the leader of this country and start negotiating on this particular dispute.

“They’ve gone on airways talking about constructive meetings. I don’t know what meetings they’re in, because they’re certainly not the same ones I’m in – I can’t put ‘constructive meetings’ on a ballot form. I need them to come with an offer.”

She told Sky News: “I want Rishi Sunak now to come to the table. It’s very clear that Steve Barclay does not have any authority, he doesn’t have the authority to do the deal.

“The Prime Minister has absolutely not spoken to us about this in any way, shape or form.

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“This is his responsibility. This is the biggest abdication of leadership that I have seen in negotiations ever in 30 years of negotiating. He needs to do the job he’s paid for – get around the table so these people now can get back to work.

“I’m the leader of the biggest private sector union – the private sector wouldn’t operate like this in negotiations of this calibre… the CEO will be in a room with me, would be negotiating and put a deal back to the members. That’s what the Government needs to do.

“Either Rishi Sunak isn’t up to the job and he doesn’t know how to negotiate, or there’s something more sinister going on here.”

Meanwhile, Unison suggested that the “blockage” in the negations was coming from the Treasury.

Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison union, told BBC Breakfast: “It feels like the blockage is at the Chancellor’s level, which is really ironic because Jeremy Hunt, only a few short months ago was writing reports as chair of the (Health and Social Care) Select Committee, talking about the investment that’s needed to resolve the workforce emergency in the NHS, so he knows more than anybody else what is needed.

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“He’s also worked with unions very constructively to resolve disputes before – he worked with Unison and other health unions to resolve the 2014/15 pay dispute.

“So he’s got a track record in working with us to do this. We just want him to do that again. And to put a stop to this before any more strikes are necessary.”

Thousands of members of Unison, Unite and the GMB unions are walking out across England and Wales on Monday.

From 7am, paramedics, emergency care assistants, ambulance technicians, other 999 crew members and control room staff across five services in England – London, Yorkshire, the North West, North East and South West – were joining picket lines.

Porters, cleaners, nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants, theatre staff and other NHS workers at the Liverpool University Hospitals Trust and the city’s Heart and Chest Hospital are also out on strike.

On Sunday, Ms Graham indicated a 10% pay rise would be considered by union members.

But a double-digit pay rise was ruled out for nurses last week after Mr Barclay said it was “not affordable”.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Barclay said: “It is hugely disappointing some ambulance workers are continuing to take industrial action. While we have contingency plans in place to mitigate risks to patient safety, there will inevitably be further disruption.

“It is important people continue coming forward for treatment – call 999 in life-threatening emergencies and use NHS 111 online, local pharmacies and GP services for non-life-threatening care.

“I have had constructive talks with unions about this coming year’s pay process for 2023/24, and am keen to continue talking about what is affordable and fair.”

NHS medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “As with other ambulance strikes, the message to patients remains that it is vital to come forward and seek emergency care if needed.

“This includes calling 999 for life-threatening emergencies as well as using 111 online for other health needs where you will receive clinical advice on the best next steps to take.

“People should also continue to use local services such as pharmacies and general practice as they normally would which aren’t impacted by strike action.”