As UNISON members prepare for a fifth day of strikes in England on 8 March – with thousands more health workers preparing to join the action – the government stubbornly refuses to engage in talks with all the health unions or to consider improving its miserly pay award.
And all the while, Rishi Sunak and his ministers peddle the same lies and misinformation, to distract from their simple failure to do the right thing. UNISON policy officer Guy Collis applies a scalpel to some of their worst fictions.
Myth: Increasing NHS pay will fuel inflation
Fact: Economic organizations such as the International Monetary Fund have found little evidence that raising pay will lead to the “wage price spiral” that conservative commentators fear. The real crisis is in pay and living standards, which not only directly affects health workers but, by reducing workers’ purchasing power, also damages local economies and the UK’s wider growth prospects.
Myth: The government does not have the money for bigger pay rises
Fact: Figures show that the government recorded a budget surplus of more than £5bn in the month of January 2023. In addition, government borrowing is currently £30bn less than predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility. So the money is there; it just needs government to make health workers its priority.
Myth: All parts of the economy are having to accept cutbacks in the current crisis
Fact: Recent weeks have seen huge profits reported by banks and energy and oil companies. For example, British Gas owner Centrica reported record profits of £3.3bn, while BP and Shell combined to make an eye-watering £55bn in the past year. So while some firms are making money from the spike in energy costs, NHS staff and other workers are left to pay the price. In addition, bankers’ bonuses are once again set to run into billions, regardless of performance.
Myth: No government could afford to increase pay for NHS staff
Fact: Rishi Sunak does not need to look far for a different approach to disputes over NHS pay. Governments in Wales and Scotland have shown that there is an alternative to the intransigence of the Westminster government. In both nations more money has been found for health staff as a way of attempting to bring disputes to an end.
Myth: The Pay Review Body decides what staff should be paid, so the government’s hands are tied
Fact: As it always does, the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) made a recommendation to the government for an NHS pay award for 2022/23. Ministers can and have responded differently, in different years, to the PRB, on issues such as whether to implement recommendations in full or in part, or whether to delay or stage recommended pay awards. For example, in 2008-10 and again in 2018-2020 the government settled NHS pay outside of the PRB process.
Governments have also previously chosen to top up PRB recommendations when necessary. So, NHS pay remains the responsibility of the government, however much it might seek to hide behind the pay review body process.
Myth: Health staff have already received a generous pay rise for 2022/23
Fact: At the start of 2022 UNISON and the other health unions asked ministers to short-cut the lengthy PRB process and make a swift inflation-proof pay rise to all NHS staff, to be implemented from April that year. Instead, the government waited until late July to announce the award of £1,400 that the PRB had recommended in May – and health workers did not receive the increase until September. Not only had the government failed to match the unions’ pay claim, but what was offered at this late date was quickly swallowed up by rocketing energy bills.
Myth: The government has started meaningful pay talks with the trade unions
Fact: Health workers in five unions, including UNISON, are involved in industrial action over NHS pay. But last week it emerged that the government had invited the RCN for pay talks, but not the other unions. Choosing to speak to just one of the unions will not be sufficient to stop the strikes taking place and such divisive action risks making a bad situation even worse.
Myth: The unions are responsible for escalating the NHS pay dispute
Fact: Rather than entering early talks with the unions or engaging with all trade unions in the current dispute, the government has embarked on draconian new anti-strike legislation which it is seeking to rush through Parliament with minimal scrutiny. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has been attacked by politicians from across the political spectrum, with the government’s own impact assessment admitting that it could make disruption worse by forcing staff to opt for other forms of industrial action, such as overtime bans. Regrettably, the government continues to favour provocation over negotiation.
Myth: The public does not support health staff taking action to improve their pay
Fact: Opinion polls continue to show resounding levels of support for striking health workers. This is in stark contrast to public attitudes to the government’s handling of the NHS: a recent report suggests that just 8% of people in England think the UK government has the right policies for the NHS.
Myth: NHS staff have been protected from the worst of austerity in the past decade
Fact: Recent analysis from the TUC shows that hundreds of thousands of NHS workers have lost at least “a year’s worth of salary” because their pay has not kept pace with inflation since 2010. In addition to deteriorating living standards, health workers have worked through the worst pandemic for a century, and the most recent NHS staff survey found that nearly half the workforce had felt unwell as a result of work-related stress at some point in the past year.
Little surprise, then, that the NHS in England is currently struggling with unprecedented staff vacancies of 133,000.