Public support for nurses’ strike mounts pressure on Sunak, divides conservatives | industrial action

Public support for striking nurses has increased over the past fortnight, poll finds Observer revealed, as ministers pledge to stand firm against any pay rise offers ahead of further NHS walkouts.

As pressure mounts within the Conservative Party and among NHS bosses for Rishi Sunak to find a compromise, the latest Opinium poll shows that after tens of thousands of nurses struck across England, the Country of Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday – the first such action in the historic NHS – nurses retain strong public support. Three-fifths (60%) of voters said they supported striking nurses for two days in December, up three points from the last poll a fortnight ago. Some 29% opposed it, 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 insisted reopening talks would undermine the independent pay review body that recommended the government’s proposed pay settlement.

However, half of voters (50%) think the government should negotiate on pay, even if it means having to pay more than the pay review body has recommended. Only 23% think that they should not negotiate with the unions on wages and stick to these recommendations.

The findings expose the political difficulties Sunak faces as the government considers the possibility of further nurses’ strikes next month. There is evidence that the public views nurses on strike differently than other industrial sectors. For example, 45% oppose railway workers striking during the winter, while 39% support them.

Privately, senior officials at Downing St acknowledge the differences in public sentiment between nurses and other striking sectors. However, there is also serious concern about the precedent that would be set by effectively reversing an independent compensation recommendation. Sunak continues to stick to the argument that nurses were offered a 3% pay rise last year while other public sector workers were given a pay freeze – and are now seeing themselves propose an increase of 4% to 5%.

Sunak has also attempted to use the wave of winter strikes as a political tool to hurt 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 growing among his MPs over the need to give ground to nurses.

Some prominent MPs are uniting around the idea that the salary review process could be reopened to take account of the high level of inflation of recent months. The idea was raised by Jerry Cope, a former head of the review body, who said revisiting his original conclusion could be a solution to a “seemingly unsolvable problem”. Steve Brine, a former health minister who now chairs the Commons health select committee, said allowing the pay review body to reconsider its recommendation would be a “sensible response”.

‘We can’t afford not to’: UK firefighter, paramedic, train driver and teacher on strike – video

However, others involved believe there is no time for such a review and say a more realistic time for the government to compromise is at a meeting early in the new year to discuss next year’s wage settlement. At that point, they believe ministers, the pay review body and unions could agree a retrospective deal for the past year.

There is growing nervousness on the Tory benches over the government’s hard line against any increase in the supply for nurses. Former Conservative President Jake Berry and former cabinet minister Robert Buckland have called for a compromise. There are also fears that ‘red wall’ voters will favor the striking nurses.

Dan Poulter, a doctor and former health minister, said it was ‘dishonest’ for ministers to hide behind the pay body because recommendations had been ignored in the past. He said there was no time for another independent review, instead calling for a compromise in the new year. He warned that the widespread use of temporary staff and a vacancy crisis showed nurses’ pay had simply fallen too low.

“If we go back around 10 years, there would have been only a handful of hospitals spending around 10% of their total staffing bill on temporary and locum staff,” 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.

“I would suggest that some of my colleagues will have mailbags full of messages from constituents, calling for a speedy resolution to this crisis. People will also be concerned about the impact it will have on their own care or the care of friends and family. This is a very real problem for many people.

Other senior Tories warn that giving more to nurses will make it extremely difficult for ministers to withhold further wage demands. “If they were to do that, then resuscitating the pay review body is possible,” they said. “But if they did, they would have to make a huge political effort to say they are just nurses, because they have a particular claim – and because strikes would undoubtedly lead to a large number of preventable deaths. You could pretty much do it. But that will require statements from the Prime Minister. I wouldn’t recommend it at this point.”

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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