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The mainstream media on Tuesday was buzzing with headlines about public sector pay rises – and social media was exploding with questions and expressions of frustration from nurses and midwives over why they were not included.
The chancellor confirmed an above-inflation uplift for nearly 900,000 workers in England for 2020-21, including doctors and teachers, in recognition of their contributions to tackling Covid-19.
But the country’s 300,000 NHS nurses and midwives, plus other nursing staff on Agenda for Change, found they were excluded, despite their enormous contribution during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Not for the first time, the government opted to use language that almost seemed primed to infuriate a vital workforce”
The reason given was that Agenda for Change staff are still within the span of the three-year 6.5% pay deal agreed in 2018 by unions and the government negotiators.
Not for the first time, the government opted to use language that almost seemed primed to infuriate a vital workforce which, on the whole, can hardly be described as well-paid compared with other graduate professions.
The exact words used in the Treasury statement revealing the public sector pay rise were that Agenda for Change staff “continue to benefit” from the three-year pay deal.
This is likely to revive unhappy memories from May, when health and social care secretary Matt Hancock also claimed nurses had received a “very significant” pay rise in recent years. Why do ministers do it?
And that’s without even mentioning the leak during the same month that a pay freeze might even be on the cards for public sector workers; something hopefully that is now well and truly off the table.
The controversial deal for Agenda for Change staff in England, along with similar deals implemented in Scotland and Wales, is due to end in March 2021.
While the length of the deal brought some certainty for staff, there have been ongoing debates about how beneficial it actually was, in terms of total salary increase and how the headline 6.5% uplift was split.
Now is not the time to revisit all the details of the debate but the deal did play a large part in the resignation of the Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive and general secretary.
I think we can safely agree that the old deal was neither very significant in terms of a pay rise nor especially beneficial. Enough said?
So why does the government continue to follow this tack? Why talk up a deal it knows was not particularly good, as if NHS staff should be grateful for something that did not even bring salaries back to pre-austerity levels. These people have just worked themselves into the ground for the country and continue to face enormous pressure.
Instead, why couldn’t ministers just respond by agreeing that nurses should and would receive a pay rise – as they surely must now other public sector staff have – but that negotiations on the details would begin at the appropriate time with unions?
Public support is firmly on the side of the profession and nurses are needed like never before, so what is the point of playing political games that will ultimately cost votes and may cause more nurses to leave a profession already chronically under strength?
The government should simply begin negotiating on the next pay deal early, as unions have requested; that would mean a deal could be ready to be implemented in April with no backdating. Alternatively it could at least give some kind of reassurance that a pay rise is in the offing.
It’s the very least NHS staff deserve. Promise a decent pay rise for nurses now and shelve the damaging rhetoric.