The recommended 1% pay rise for NHS staff marks “a period of restraint”, the Education Secretary said as the Government turns to cutbacks to claw back pandemic spending.
Gavin Williamson said ministers had “put forward what we believe we can afford” for nurses during “difficult economic challenges”, after £400 billion of borrowing by the Government during its response to the coronavirus crisis.
Teachers and others in the public sector will face a pay freeze, with NHS staff the only group to be exempted following their efforts during the crisis, he said.
He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “What we all recognise is that this is a period of making sure we have restraint right across the public sector.
“We’re facing almost three-quarters of a million people who are unemployed and we have in the context of that decided to exempt the NHS from the public sector pay freeze, which is the only part of the public sector that has been exempted from that.”
Asked about the prospect of a pay rise for teachers, he added: “We saw this year the largest pay increase for teachers since 2005.
“But there is going to be pay restraint, there is going to be a pay freeze for the coming year, but we are continuing to invest in schools.”
Labour labelled the NHS pay recommendation “reprehensible”, and argued that a 2.1% wage increase had been budgeted and legislated for in January 2020 when the NHS’s long-term spending plans were voted on in the House of Commons.
The proposal has sparked talk of industrial action and demonstrations are planned outside Downing Street in London and in Manchester city centre on Sunday.
Senior Conservatives, including former health minister Dr Dan Poulter, who has been working on the NHS front line during the pandemic, have also broken ranks to criticise the 1% decision in recent days.
Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the rise recommended by ministers to the independent pay bodies amounts to a “real-terms pay cut” as it will be outflanked by inflation.
A newly-qualified nurse earning a £24,907 salary would face a real-terms cut to the tune of £174 if the rise goes ahead, according to Labour.
Ms Nandy told Sky News: “The Government, to be clear, is not planning a pay rise.
“That is a real-terms pay cut because it doesn’t keep up with inflation, and for nurses to be offered a pay cut is just reprehensible in our view.
“We think nurses deserve a pay rise this year and that should never have been something that was up for negotiation – this is a Government that has completely got its priorities wrong.
“If they can give a special adviser (Dominic Cummings) who broke the rules a 50% pay rise but then offer our nurses a real-terms pay cut, that is a Government that just has not understood who it is that is getting us through this crisis.”
The Observer reported many Tory MPs now believe the 1% offer will be revisited when the NHS pay review bodies recommend salary levels for health service staff in May.
Mr Williamson highlighted the importance of the review “process” during interviews on Sunday.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We’ve put forward what we believe we can afford and is part of a process and that is what will be looked at.
“What the Government has put forward has been passed to an independent review.”
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has set up a £35 million industrial action fund to support members wanting to strike over the pay move, but shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said he believes nurses do not want to join picket lines.
“I know nurses, they don’t want to go on strike,” he told Marr.
“I will always support the rights of staff to take industrial action but we don’t want to get to that place, so the Government has to drop this 1% pay rise, which is a pay cut.”