Talks to resolve strikes end with little progress, unions sayon January 9, 2023 at 3:37 pm

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Unite says NHS talks were a “missed opportunity”, as unions say this week’s strikes will go ahead.

NHS nurses hold signs during a strike over payImage source, Reuters

Talks with ministers aimed at resolving NHS strikes have made little progress, unions have said.

Unite said the meetings were “a missed opportunity”, while the Royal College of Nursing said they were “bitterly disappointing”.

Unison said there were discussions over pay but no “tangible concessions” which would enable Wednesday’s ambulance strikes to be called off.

However, a government source described the talks as useful and constructive.

Ministers have also been meeting teaching and rail unions in a bid to avert further industrial action.

Unions are calling for pay rises to keep up with the rising cost of living but ministers say any offer must be “affordable”.

Speaking ahead of the meetings, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “People need to get talking, that’s what they’re doing, hopefully we can find a way through this.”

He did not deny that his government could follow Wales by offering a one-off payment to public sector workers to ease the cost of living.

Onay Kasab, from the Unite union, said the government had suggested during the talks earlier that any one-off payments would have to be based on “productivity savings”.

He said that some of his members were working 18 hour shifts and that it was “an insult” to discuss productivity.

“We are extremely angry,” he added.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps, who was not involved in the talks, insisted it was reasonable for employers to link pay increases to improvements in productivity.

“The principle that as a country we can afford to do more if we can make ourselves more productive seems to me to be pretty common sense stuff,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

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Other ambulance worker union representatives leaving the meeting were slightly more positive, with Sara Gorton from Unison saying there had been progress.

“We did actually manage to talk about pay – we didn’t get the tangible concessions that we might have hoped for that would enable us to call off the [ambulance worker] strikes later this week,” she said.

Rachel Harrison, from the GMB union, said the talks “fell well short of anything substantial that could stop this week’s strikes”.

There was “some engagement on pay” but “no concrete offer”, she said.

Joanne Galbraith-Marten, from the Royal College of Nursing, said there was “no resolution to our dispute yet in sight”.

Nurses are also set to walk out for two days next week.

Elaine Sparkes, from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said the talks were “more constructive” than previous meetings but “there is nothing tangible on the table” and the union would announce strike dates later this week.

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A government source said Health Secretary Steve Barclay discussed productivity and efficiency savings which would help decide what was affordable for the coming year’s pay deal.

A one-off payment for health service staff was mentioned in passing, the source said.

Unions have repeatedly called for a better pay offer to be on the table before April and are said to have asked Mr Barclay to make that case to the chancellor.

The source said Mr Barclay had agreed to look at their request, without making any commitments.

Unions say current disputes are about this year’s pay offer but earlier Mr Sunak did not address a question about the 2022-23 settlement and ministers have previously said the focus should be on next year’s deal.

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Earlier, there were also meetings between Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and teaching unions.

Following the talks, Kevin Courtney, from the National Education Union (NEU), said “no concrete progress” was made and there was no new pay offer.

“There is nothing so far that would dissuade us from taking industrial action,” he said.

However, in a statement he later said there was a promise of further discussions on changes to pay for this year.

Teaching unions covering England and Wales, including the NEU, the NAHT and the NASUWT, are currently balloting members on potential strike action.

In Scotland, teachers are striking for two days this week, with a week-long industrial action planned for next week.

The day of talks come as a ballot opens for junior doctors in England to decide on their own industrial action, which could begin in March.

Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said there was a “chink of optimism” after Mr Sunak told the BBC on Sunday that “we want to have a reasonable, two-way conversation about pay and everything else that is relevant”.

However, she said this would not stop next week’s planned strikes by nurses.

The government has previously refused to discuss pay for public sector workers, saying it is a matter for independent pay review bodies.

Graphic shows those going on strike over the coming weeks - they include ambulance workers in England and Wales, rail workers, Abellio buses, highway workers, Border Force workers and driving examiners.
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