Public support for nurses’ strike puts pressure on Sunak and divides Tories | Labor struggle

Public support for striking nurses has increased in the past fortnight, a poll for Observer has revealed, as ministers vow to stand firm against any pay rise offer ahead of further NHS cuts.

With pressure mounting in the Conservative Party and among NHS chiefs for Rishi Sunak to find a compromise, the latest Opinium poll shows that following the strike by tens of thousands of nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday – the first of its kind action in NHS history – nurses retain significant public support. Three-fifths (60%) of voters said they supported nurses striking for two days in December, up three points from the last poll a fortnight ago. About 29% were opposed, down one point.

nurses strike

In another cause for concern in Downing St, there also appears to be public pressure for the government to reopen talks with nurses. Sunak and Health Secretary Steve Barclay have insisted that reopening talks would undermine the independent pay review body which recommended the pay settlement be tabled by the government.

However, half of voters (50%) believe that the government should negotiate on wages, even if that means awarding more than the wage review body recommended. Only 23% believe they should not negotiate with the unions on wages and adhere to these recommendations.

The findings reveal the political difficulties facing Sunak as the government considers the possibility of more strikes by nurses next month. There is evidence that the public has a different view of striking nurses than it does of other sectors that take up the fight. For example, 45% oppose rail workers going on strike over the winter, while 39% support them.

Privately, senior figures in Downing St acknowledge the differences in public feeling between nurses and other striking sectors. However, there is also serious nervousness about the precedent that would be set by effectively overriding an independent salary recommendation. Sunak continues to stick to the argument that nurses were offered a 3% pay rise last year when other public sector workers were on pay freezes – and are now being offered a 4% to 5% increase.

Sunak has also sought to use the spate of winter strikes as a political tool to damage Labour, repeatedly using Prime Minister’s Questions to attack Keir Starmer as too weak to “stand up to the unions”. Yet there is now a clear division developing among his MPs over the need to give ground to nurses.

Some prominent MPs are rallying around the idea that the pay review process could be reopened to take into account the high level of inflation in recent months. The idea was raised by Jerry Cope, a former head of the audit body, who said going back to the original finding could be a solution to an “apparently intractable problem”. Steve Brine, a former health secretary who now chairs the Commons Health Select Committee, has said allowing the pay review body to look again at its recommendation would be a “sensible response”.

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However, others involved believe that there is no time for such a review and say that a more realistic time for the government to enter into compromises is at a meeting early in the new year to discuss next year’s salary settlement. At the moment, they believe ministers, the pay control body and the unions can agree a retrospective deal for the past year.

There is growing nervousness on the Tory benches over the Government’s firm line against any increase in the supply of nurses. Former Tory leader Jake Berry and former cabinet minister Robert Buckland have called for a compromise. There are also concerns that “red wall” voters are sympathetic to striking nurses.

Dan Poulter, a doctor and former health minister, said it was “disingenuous” for ministers to hide behind the pay body, as recommendations have been ignored in the past. He said there was no time for another independent review and instead called for a compromise in the new year. He warned that the widespread use of temporary workers and a job crisis showed that nurses’ wages have simply fallen too low.

“If we go back about 10 years, there would have been only a handful of hospitals that spent about 10% of their total staffing bill on temps and temps,” he said. “Now 10% would be a very low figure for most hospital trusts, with most trusts spending 20-25% of their staffing bill on temporary staff. It’s not sustainable and it’s not an acceptable place to be.

“I would suggest that some of my colleagues will have post bags filled with messages from constituents, calling for a quick resolution to this crisis. People will also be concerned about what the impact of this is going to be on their own care or the care to friends and family. It’s a very real problem for a lot of people.”

Other senior Tories warn that handing over more to nurses will make it extremely difficult for ministers to withhold other pay demands. “If they were to do that, then it is possible to revive the wage review body,” they said. “But if they did, they would have to put in a huge amount of political effort to say that these are just nurses, because they have a special claim – and because strikes would undoubtedly lead to a large number of avoidable deaths. You could pretty much do that. But that would require statements from the prime minister. I wouldn’t recommend that at this stage.”

On Friday, Sunak showed no signs of moving towards a compromise deal, insisting the deal on the table was “appropriate and fair”.

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