It is “unforgivable” for the health secretary to reject an offer by nursing leaders to attend pay talks in return for suspending strike action, shadow health and social care minister Liz Kendall has said.
She told BBC Breakfast: “You asked what we would do, and let me say this very simply.
“And I think it’s unforgivable that he’s not doing that, because nobody wants to see the strikes. Passengers and patients don’t want to see the trains on strike or the NHS nurses on strike.
“The way to solve that is to get around the table”.
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On Sunday, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison said they would be willing to press pause on the strikes if the health secretary, Steve Barclay, would meet with them to discuss pay.
Mr Barclay defended this decision not to attend such meetings on Monday morning and said both sides must respect the recommendations of the independent pay review body.
The health secretary said meeting the pay demands of health unions would require the Government to take money away from clearing the NHS treatment backlog.
He also told BBC Breakfast: “You just started this interview by saying about people waiting for operations. I don’t want to be taking money away from clearing the backlog which is what we would have to do, we would have to take money away from patients waiting for operations to then fund additional pay.
“And if everyone on the public sector were to get an increase in line with inflation that would be costing £28billion at a time when the Government has to get inflation under control because that is the biggest factor in terms of people’s cost of living.
“It is right we have a balanced process. That is what our independent pay review body does. It looks at the cost in terms of tax to the rest of your viewers, those in the private sector will not be getting 19 per cent which is what the trade unions have demanded.
“So it is right in terms of your other viewers that we are fair to them, we are fair to the wider economy, we have a balanced approach, and we have an independent process that looks at that.”
This comes as the government will be holding an emergency Cobra meeting later to discuss contingency plans for upcoming strikes, including using the military and civil servants to cover Border Force staff.
Cobra is an emergency response committee made up of ministers, civil servants and others.
The government has also promised to deploy armed forces to hospital trusts ahead of an ambulance strike.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, who will chair the COBRA meeting on Monday, has urged unions to call off the “damaging” strikes.
“The stance the unions have taken will cause disruption for millions of hardworking people over the coming weeks,” he said.
“I will be chairing a series of Cobra meetings over the coming weeks to ensure our plans are as robust as possible, and that disruption is kept to a minimum.”
A wave of strikes will hit the UK over pay this month from nurses, paramedics, rail workers, and Border Force staff.