Nurses have said they will call off strike action later this month if the government discusses pay for this year – but ministers are standing by their refusal not to.
Rishi Sunak dodged answering whether talks the government has invited all unions to next week will include discussions about pay for the 2022-23 financial year – of which three full months are left.
Sky News understands the government has ruled out negotiating this year’s pay as it is nearly the end of the financial year and public sector pay was discussed and concluded before this year started.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay confirmed the talks will be about “the coming year”.
Asked whether talks next week will include discussions about this year’s pay, the prime minister said on Friday: “What we’ve said is we want to have a grown-up, honest conversation with all union leaders about what is responsible, what is reasonable, and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay.
“We think that those conversations should happen. That’s why we’ve invited everyone in to have those talks on Monday.
“And I’m hopeful that those talks will be constructive and we can find a way through this.”
On Thursday, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it would accept a pay rise of around 10%, instead of 19%, to end its dispute with the government.
Nurses walked out for the first time in the RCN’s history on two days in December and after failing to come to a deal with the government they are set to strike again on 18 and 19 January.
Who is striking and when?
But after Mr Sunak indicated talks would not include this year’s pay, an RCN spokeswoman said: “Like late last year, we will always meet the health secretary to discuss the issues.
“But negotiations about pay for the current year, not next year, are what we need to call off this month’s strike action.
“The government should meet us halfway and get these negotiations moving – the ball is in their court.”
The GMB union, which represents nurses, ambulance workers and other NHS staff, said it had been invited to meet “soon” to hear from the health secretary about evidence given to pay review bodies, which recommend what public sector workers should be paid.
But a spokesman said it would only suspend its upcoming strikes if the government made an offer for this year.
Another union confirmed to Sky News the government’s invite to get around the table is to only talk about next year’s pay, not this year’s.
The source added that the invite had no date for when the meeting was set for.
The British Medical Association (BMA), which represents junior doctors who are balloting next week to strike in March, said the invitation was to discuss the evidence submitted by the pay review bodies.
The pay review bodies are independent and made up of experts and staff from the field concerned, but the BMA said they are “not fit for purpose”.
Ministers have repeatedly said it is not them who unions should negotiate pay with but the pay review bodies, which has angered striking staff across industries, who say the government does not have to accept their recommendations.
Unions have also argued that pay for this year was set before inflation soared to above 10%, so it should be increased now to help those struggling with the cost of living crisis.