Health unions invited to pay talks - day after one threatened to cut cover for strikes

Government officials say they would offer a one off payment to ambulance workers, but the unions want clarification before pausing strikes, as Anushka Asthana reports.

Health unions representing paramedics, call handlers, physiotherapists and a range of other NHS workers, have been invited by government enter formal talks on pay.

The move comes after the Royal College of Nursing agreed to pause its strikes in order to proceed with talks in a unilateral move that angered other unions.

It also comes a day after ITV News revealed that one union - GMB - threatened to escalate its action next week by covering fewer emergency call outs.

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison - who is also chair of the union group on the NHS staff council - said there was need to clarify the basis on which talks could get under way.

"This includes understanding the status of the unilateral talks that have taken place with the Royal College of Nursing."

Ms Gorton also wrote to Health Secretary Steve Barclay late last week to warn about anger among other health unions about the RCN's talks.

The letter said failure to speak to all unions was unacceptable, ill-considered, and had potentially perilous consequences. 

As I understand it the RCN had around two weeks of informal discussions directly with Downing Street before entering talks.

I've heard there was a promise that talks would be around a one-off payment for 2022/23 (the unions have all insisted that more money must come in this financial year) plus a higher settlement for 2023/24.

However, I do not think there was a specific financial offer.

The other unions have made clear that they will only pause talks if there is the promise of a realistic offer.

Yesterday the GMB said it was ramping up its strike action next week because it believed that the government had only spoken to the RCN after a threatened strike - due today and tomorrow - that took out more emergency care.

For the first time nurses in intensive care, accident and emergency and cancer care were ready to walk out.

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The GMB's national secretary, Rachel Harrison, told ITV News that the message was clear - that only escalation would get the government to the table.

However, government sources totally reject that, saying they spoke to the RCN only because of the promise to pause strikes. Though they will deny any link, they do appear to have sent out today's invitation after the escalation threat.

Danny Mortimer, CEO of NHS employers, said the offer of "substantive talks" was "very positive".

"I am hopeful that trade union colleagues are able to respond to this meaningful offer of talks with the government and we look forward to working with all parties to find a constructive way forward from this dispute and its impact on NHS teams, services and patients."

GMB National Secretary Rachel Harrison Credit: PA

Ms Harrison said: “The government has finally realised what we’ve been saying all along – they need to talk pay now.

“And it is no surprise this has come less than 24 hours after GMB ambulance workers announced tighter derogations.

"However the government has set some concerning preconditions - GMB members need more clarity.

"Vague promises will not cut it - ambulance workers need to know that they are going to be spoken to seriously about pay."

Meanwhile, the junior doctor strikes will go ahead, after the British Medical Association (BMA) branded talks with Health Secretary Steve Barclay “just a facade”.

Co-chairs of the British Medical Association (BMA) junior doctors’ committee Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trevedi, called the secretary of state a “professional delayer,” claiming he held talks at the Department of Health on Thursday without a mandate to negotiate.

“We came here with a mandate and he turned up without one, there was never any real prospect of any real negotiation or offer – it was just a facade," Dr Robert Laurenson told PA.

With 11 days to go until the 72-hour walkout, Dr Laurenson said Mr Barclay did not offer any sort of time frame for negotiations.

He added: “The government aren’t taking us seriously.

“I don’t understand how the government can look at a mandate that’s one of the strongest industrial mandates in history and essentially not have any preparations made or anything to put on the table.”