LONDON – Unions representing more than a million health care workers in England, including nurses and paramedics — but not doctors — reached a deal Thursday to resolve months of disruptive strikes for higher wages.
The announcement came as early-career physicians spent a third day on picket lines and the day after U.K. Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt announced a budget that included no additional money for labor groups that have staged crippling strikes amid a punishing cost-of-living crisis and double-digit inflation.
Any strike actions will be halted while rank-and-file members vote on whether to accept an offer of a lump sum payment for the current year and a 5% raise next year.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was good deal for National Health Service staff who persevered through the pandemic along with patients and taxpayers. He encouraged other striking unions to come to the bargaining table.
“We don’t want disruption for patients, we don’t want disruption for schoolchildren in our classrooms," Sunak said during a visit to a London hospital, where he met with nurses. "Today’s agreement demonstrates we are serious about this and we can find workable solutions.”
But the head of the Royal College of Nursing, one of at least five unions supporting the deal, said the pay offer would not have come if nurses hadn't made the difficult decision to go on strike, forcing the government to negotiate.
“It is not a panacea, but it is real, tangible progress, and the RCN’s member leaders are asking fellow nursing staff to support what our negotiations have secured,” Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen said.
Unite, the largest trade union in the U.K. but with a smaller presence in the health care field, blasted the government for months of “dither and delay” that caused unnecessary pain to staff and patients and said it would would not recommend the deal but let workers vote on it.
“It is clear that this government does not hold the interest of workers or the NHS at heart,” Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said. “Their behavior and disdain for NHS workers and workers generally is clear from their actions. Britain has a broken economy and workers are paying the price.”
Unions argue that wages in the public sector have failed to keep pace with skyrocketing food and energy costs that have left many households struggling to pay their bills.
Inflation in the U.K. reached a 40-year high of 11.1% in October before dropping in January to 10.1%.
A wave of strikes by train drivers, airport baggage handlers, border staff, driving instructors and postal workers since last summer has created havoc for residents.
Firefighters, who canceled a planned strike, and London bus drivers recently reached deals to keep 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 all walked off the job on Wednesday.
Some have criticized health care workers for jeopardizing lives, though ambulance crews said they responded to the most urgent calls and emergency rooms were staffed.
The health care workers, including midwives and physical therapists, had been in talks since they held what organizers said was the largest strike in the history of the country’s National Health Service last month.
The labor actions echo the economic unrest that has rippled across in France, including over the government's plan to increase the retirement age.
The U.K.'s lackluster economy is likely to avoid a recession this year, though growth will still shrink. The International Monetary Fund last month said the country would be the only major economy to contract this year, performing even worse than sanctions-hit Russia.
It was not immediately clear where the funding for raises would come from because they weren't in the budget Hunt announced Wednesday and The Department of Health and Social Care had recently claimed raises above 3.5% were unaffordable.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said they would look for cost savings and the funding would ultimately be up to the Treasury and would not come at the expense of patients.
If the Treasury doesn't provide the additional money, the overburdened public health system could be forced for a second consecutive year to cut spending or positions, said Ben Zaranko of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an independent think tank that analyzes U.K. government fiscal and economic policies.
"There must be a risk that the NHS is asked to make heroic efficiency savings to absorb these costs, struggles to do so, and instead has to be bailed out in 6 months or a year’s time," Zaranko said. “That would hardly lend itself to sensible financial planning.”
A ratified deal with nurses and others will ease some of the pain on the state-funded public health system, which has been beset by winter viruses, staff shortages and backlogs from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The deal only applies to workers in England because Scotland and Wales have semiautonomous governments in charge of health policy.