Giving in to nurses’ wage demands would “fuel” inflation and have a “huge impact” on public finances, a minister told Sky News.
Oliver Dowden said he would “very much like the government to write the check” and comply with the call from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which wants a wage increase of at least 17%.
But he said the government remains “resolute” and reiterated a claim that giving in to public sector unions over wage demands would cost each household an extra £1,000 a year.
Challenged by the numbers he presented – as independent forecasters have predicted inflation to be much lower at 5.5% next year – Mr Dowden said “that’s a totally different proposition”.
But he said it was right for the government to follow recommendations from independent pay-monitoring bodies, which proposed a nurses pay rise of about 4% over the summer – before inflation soared – to “keep politics out of the discussion”.
Nurses staged the first strike in their history this week when they staged a strike on Thursday, with another set for Tuesday and more possible in 2023 if their demands are not met.
RCN head Pat Cullen suggested the strikes could have been called off if the government moved over the pay scheme.
But untill now, Health Secretary Steve Barclay has refused to put wages back on the table during negotiationsadhere to the recommendation of the wage review.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Dowden said: “I would love to be able to sit here right now and say to you and say to all your viewers – and those nurses in particular – we will give you a 19% pay rise.
“The reason why that is not possible is because of the cost to public finances.
“This isn’t my money. It’s not the government’s money. It’s your viewers’ money being spent [and] As ministers we have to make very difficult choices.”
He added: “We are trying to be reasonable in this regard. However, we need to balance the broader public considerations on this. This is what you would expect from ministers in these kinds of scenarios.
“And I have to say to union leaders, we will remain reasonable, but we must also be firm when it comes to protecting the wider public finances.”
With strikes for every day leading up to Christmas, from railway workers to Border Guard officials and beyond, Dowden urged all unions to call off industrial action “to give people a break over Christmas”.
But his tone was very different from that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunakwho today accused the union leaders of being the “Grinches”. [who] want to steal Christmas”.
Writing in The Sun on Sunday, Sunak made no mention of nurses or ambulance drivers also going on strike.
But he called railroad workers “a million of misery” with what he said were “cruelly timed” strikes.
Labor’s Stephen Kinnock called the prime minister’s language “inflammatory” and told Sky News the government was “eager to fight” with the unions.
“I think the government needs to stop all the rhetoric, the empty attitude and sowing the seeds of division and really start looking for a constructive solution so that we can get people back to work in a way that they feel comfortable. feel valued and where they feel there is a real future for them in those jobs,” he added.
Armed forces ‘no replacement’
Meanwhile, trade union leaders and senior military officials have expressed concern about plans to call in the armed forces to fill the gaps created by industrial action, particularly to replace ambulance drivers and Border Force personnel.
Sara Gorton, Unison’s head of health, warned that the military is “not a substitute” for qualified paramedics, while GMB’s Nathan Holman said deploying “untrained” personnel would be a “hurdle” rather than a help.
And the Chief of the Armed Forces, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, warned it was “dangerous” to expect military personnel to be routinely deployed to cover strikes.
Mr Dowden said the government had “significant concerns” about the ambulance drivers’ strikes and again urged unions to call them off.
He added: “We work incredibly hard to make sure that, especially in the most urgent cases, people can get that ambulance.
“But the only way we can remove all of this impact is the only way to be blown off. This is not a situation we want to be in.”