Health Secretary Steve Barclay is understood to be writing to the unions to request fresh talks over strike action – but sources say he still won’t discuss increasing their wages.
Both nurses and ambulance workers are set to stage walkouts this week amid ongoing anger over pay and working conditions.
The chief of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Pat Cullen, had suggested strikes would be called off if Mr Barclay opened up discussions over wages.
But a government source insisted he would only talk about “patient safety and non-pay issues”.
Politics live: Ruling on Rwanda scheme expected this morning
The RCN is demanding an inflation-matching pay rise plus 5% for its members, but the government will only offer around 4%, as recommended in the summer by an independent pay review body – before inflation hit record highs.
Mr Barclay told reporters on Monday that he “deeply regretted” the disruption the strikes would cause to patients, but said the government had “accepted in full” the recommendation by the pay body.
“I think it’s important that the trade unions do likewise,” he added, saying nurses he had spoken to had other concerns they wanted addressed.
“They also talk about the estate and our new hospitals building programme being really important to them,” said the health secretary. “They talk about frustrations often with technology and how we need to invest more in that.
“They talk sometimes about some of the abuse that they receive and issues of safety and how we can work together to improve safety for staff.
“So there’s a range of issues that are raised by nurses with me. Pay is a factor and that’s why we have an independent process to look at that, but there’s a range of other things that also matter to staff, and I’m keen to work with the trade unions to address those concerns as well.”
Asked last night about reports Downing Street had blocked the idea of a one-off payment to nurses to prevent the strikes, Mr Barclay told reporters his conversations with Number 10 would remain private.
Meanwhile, the minister questioned the safety of the upcoming ambulance strikes.
Staff will still respond to the highest level of emergencies and are making plans for cover, while the government plans to bring in the armed forces to fill some of the gaps, with 1,200 troops expected to be deployed.
Department heads have also met this morning to discuss the strikes at an emergency government COBRA meeting.
But Mr Barclay claimed “the practical arrangements” had still not been confirmed by the unions at this late stage.
“It’s important that the trade unions honour the commitments that they’ve given to safeguard both life-threatening responses and emergency responses,” he said.
“It’s important that everyone prioritises patient safety, and in particular, those life-threatening and emergency calls.”
Unite leader Sharon Graham, who represents some ambulance workers, said the health secretary would “have to carry the can if patients suffer”, telling the Daily Mirror he was “holding the country to ransom” by refusing to discuss pay.
Unions have also attacked the plans to use armed forces personnel, saying they are not “sufficiently trained” and could even be a “hindrance”.
Senior military officials have also criticised the move, with the head of the armed forces, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, warning it was “perilous” to expect them to be used routinely to cover for strikes.
Nurses and ambulances workers aren’t the only sectors taking industrial action this week, with rail workers, Border Force officials, driving examiners, highways workers, postal workers, and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff all staging walkouts.
The Cabinet Office is expected to publish a new “resilience framework” today, bringing together all levels of government and including the private sector, charities and the public to “bolster” the UK’s preparedness for industrial action.