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UK’s biggest public-sector union plans fresh NHS strike action

Unison, the largest UK public sector union, on Wednesday announced further strike action by ambulance workers and other NHS staff after being cut out of pay talks between ministers and the Royal College of Nursing.

The RCN, which had been planning to escalate industrial action next week with a 48 hour walk out, put strike action on hold on Tuesday and agreed to talks with ministers over pay and terms and conditions in England.

But the government has infuriated other health unions that did not receive an invitation to the talks, which involved health secretary Steve Barclay and the RCN on Wednesday.

Unison said up to 32,000 of its members working in the NHS would stage a fresh day of strike action on March 8 as a “direct result of the government’s failure to hold proper pay talks with health unions”.

The industrial action will involve staff at all but one of England’s ambulance services and at other NHS trusts where strikes have been voted through recently, including Great Ormond Street hospital in London and the NHS Blood and Transplant Service.

The GMB union, which represents more than 10,000 ambulance workers, also plans to press ahead with strikes already scheduled for March 6 and 20.

Unison and the GMB are concerned the government could be planning to cut a pay deal with the RCN at the expense of other NHS staff usually covered by the same wage framework.

Ministers only arranged talks with the RCN after it proposed industrial action affecting “life-preserving” areas of hospital care, and other health unions could now potentially adopt similar tactics.

“Choosing to speak to one union and not others . . . could make a bad situation much worse,” said Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison.

“A deal just for nurses cannot possibly work . . . Health workers will want assurances from ministers that they have no intention of ripping up pay agreements in the NHS.”

The British Medical Association, whose junior doctor members are due to walk out for 72 hours next month, said it was “very disappointed” that Barclay had not attended a meeting between the union and health department officials on Wednesday.

The BMA added “there was no [pay] offer on the table and the department made it clear they are not ready to enter negotiations”.

Rishi Sunak is exploring a 5 per cent pay rise for public sector workers in 2023-24, potentially backdated to cover part of 2022-23.

But the only formal government proposals so far are recommendations from Whitehall departments to independent review bodies for pay awards averaging 3.5 per cent in 2023-24.

Downing Street on Wednesday declined to comment on details of the talks between Barclay and the RCN, adding that ministers wanted a deal that was “fair for all taxpayers”.

“We are now in a period of discussion that . . . will continue in the coming days, so I won’t be commenting on the details of those discussions while they are taking place,” said Sunak’s spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the biggest teaching union reacted with suspicion to an offer by ministers of talks on pay because it was conditional on the National Education Union pausing its plans for rolling strike action in England.

The NEU said it would recommend a suspension of industrial action to its executive council on Saturday if ministers dropped these preconditions and came forward with a “serious proposal” on pay.

At present “no such offer has been made and the strikes remain in place”, it added.

Separately, Andrew Haines, chief executive of transport infrastructure operator Network Rail, said there was “no indication” that ministers were seeking to end strikes on the railways by putting forward more money to increase workers’ pay.

“We have seen no evidence whatsoever at this stage,” he added.

Relations between the RMT union and the rail industry plunged after it rejected improved pay offers from Network Rail and train operators and called a new round of strikes.

Haines said he understood why the government had not offered further money, given the hardening in the RMT’s position.

Train drivers union Aslef announced plans for a strike on the London Underground on March 15, the day of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget.

The walkout will coincide with industrial action already planned by the PCS union involving 100,000 civil servants.

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