Sunak refuses to move on NHS pay as strikes continue

British prime minister under growing pressure to negotiate with striking health workers

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has refused to budge on NHS pay, saying that rises could make soaring inflation worse as he comes under growing pressure to negotiate with striking health workers.

Mr Sunak suggested that politicians should not “cut across” the independent pay review process to boost salaries for nurses and paramedics even if it meant further damaging strikes this winter.

However, in his first appearance at the powerful Commons liaison committee, he did not rule out the government rewriting the pay review bodies’ remit for next year, meaning NHS workers could get a bigger award in future.

“There will be a body and a process for next year. The door is always open to talk to everybody to be constructive about how we approach these things in the future,” he told MPs.


It came as last-minute talks between the health secretary, Steve Barclay, and the health unions broke down without any resolution, with Unite saying that the negotiations had been “pointless” as the Tory politician had refused to discuss pay.

Thousands of ambulance workers, including paramedics and call handlers, will strike on Wednesday in England and Wales over pay, following a second day of nurses’ strikes. NHS leaders have warned they are unable to keep patients safe during industrial action.

The prime minister told MPs on the committee, at his final parliamentary appearance before the Christmas recess, that he was standing by the recommendations of the pay review bodies, which he said had taken into account “forward estimates of inflation”.

He told public sector workers considering strike action this Christmas: “I’ve acknowledged it is difficult, it’s difficult for everybody, because inflation is where it is. And the best way to help them and help everyone else in the country is for us to get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible.

“And we need to make sure that the decisions that we make can bring about that outcome. Because if we get it wrong and we’re still dealing with high inflation in a year’s time, that’s not going to help anybody.

“I don’t want to see that, I want to see things get back to normal, and that’s why having an independent pay process is an important part of us making those decisions and getting them correct.”

Elsewhere in the session, Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to comment on speculation that he plans to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights so as to avoid legal challenges to his stated plan to stop refugees who arrive in the UK via unofficial means from being allowed to stay, irrespective of their circumstances.

Asked about his wider plan to limit the numbers of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats, set out a week ago, Mr Sunak reiterated that his pledge to clear the backlog of asylum claims by the end of next year related only to the figure of 92,000 that existed in June, not the current total of more than 143,000.

Mr Sunak also refused to speculate on how many small boats he expected to arrive in 2023, or whether the backlog would clear sufficiently so no asylum seeker would wait longer than six months for their claim to be processed.

Questioned a series of times about whether he planned to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, Mr Sunak told the MPs they would need to wait to see planned legislation, the outlines of which had been due before Christmas but have been delayed.

“I want to deliver an immigration system which means that when someone comes in illegally, they don’t have the right to stay,” he said. “We will see the legislation next year and no doubt we will have the opportunity to debate it then. But I wouldn’t want to speculate on that now.”

Leaving the European Convention on Human Rights would be popular for a number of Tory MPs, but is likely to be hugely complex for a variety of legal and treaty-based reasons.

Pushed by the SNP’s Joanna Cherry on whether he agreed with the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and his justice secretary and deputy PM, Dominic Raab, that it might be necessary, Mr Sunak again would not be drawn.

“I said I want to fix this problem,” he said. “I’m going to do everything that I need to, to fix the problem of illegal migration and small boats coming here.” – Guardian