By Brian Melley | Associated Press
LONDON — Unions representing hundreds of thousands of nurses, ambulance crews and other health care workers in England reached a deal Thursday to resolve months of disruptive strikes for higher wages, though the pact didn’t include doctors.
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.
Under the deal negotiated by government officials and union leaders, workers would get a lump sum payment for the current year and a 5% raise next year. Any strike actions will be halted while rank-and-file members vote on whether to accept it.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the pact would reward hardworking National Health Service staff who persevered through the pandemic, and prevent further work stoppages.
“This offer is good for NHS staff, it’s good for the taxpayer and most importantly it is good news for patients whose care will no longer be disrupted by strike action,” Sunak said.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing, one of five unions supporting the deal, said pay offer vindicated nurses who 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.”
Inflation in the U.K. dropped to 10.1% in January, down from a 40-year high of 11.1% in October. Skyrocketing food and energy costs have left some households struggling to pay their bills.
Unions argue that wages in the public sector have failed to keep pace with the soaring costs. But the Conservative government has argued that public sector pay increases of 10% or more would drive inflation even higher.
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.
Walkouts by health care workers put pressure on the British government to lift opposition to raises for staff in the U.K.’s overburdened public health system. Some leaders 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 plans 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.
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.