Secret Talks To End Nurse And Ambulance Strikes
Secret Talks To End Nurse And Ambulance Strikes
The most bitter disputes in the history of the NHS, with the Royal College of Nursing staging and most extensive strike action ever. Deal with ministers was reached in England this week.
It all started on a cold frosty morning, nurse’s picket lines the rhetoric was fiery and noisy. Striking nurses condemned the government for failing to open pay talks. Ministers criticised walkouts affecting patients.
But behind the scenes it was a very different story. Secret contacts were being made between the two sides.
From early January there were confidential approaches from an unofficial source to the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), the nurses’ union, about the possibility of talks beginning in England. This involved putting out feelers to see what might bring the nurses’ union to the table.
Strikes by nurses and other health unions representing paramedics, midwives and other NHS staff had been triggered when ministers insisted on sticking to the recommendations of the independent pay review body (PRB). It had proposed average increases of 4%.
The RCN’s original demand for a wage rise of 5% above inflation – equivalent at one point to 19% – was unaffordable, ministers said.
The government is ultimately responsible for setting NHS pay in England, funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. NHS Employers are involved in detailed negotiations.
But now these secret contacts had been made, it was not obvious to the RCN how closely they were linked to Downing Street or other parts of Whitehall.
The approaches seemed highly unorthodox. Usually it would be obvious whether ministers or officials were making a proposal.
But all became clear on 21 February with a call from Downing Street to the Royal College of Nursing. There was an invitation to talks which would include the idea of a one-off payment for the current financial year, a key demand of the nurses. The public announcement came as a big surprise even to some civil servants.
The prime minister was signalling a change of tack. Previously there had been denials that any more money was available. In return for the invitation to talk the RCN had to agree to call off an escalated two-day strike in England affecting all care, including emergencies.
And so began the chain of events which led to last Thursday’s pay offer to nurses, paramedics, midwives and other health staff in England.
There were shades of international diplomacy and intrigue in the negotiations. Back-channels and deniable contacts had steered a damaging dispute into calmer waters.
The stakes could not have been higher, as on the face of it the NHS strikes and widespread disruption had seemed destined to rumble on for months. But so far, these tentative talks were only with the RCN. The other health unions, representing paramedics and a range of health staff, were irritated. They were not invited to the table.
It seemed that the government was deliberately focusing on the nurses’ union because of what seemed to be rising public support. RCN’s general secretary Pat Cullen had a high profile in the media.
The RCN discussions with ministers remained shrouded in secrecy. Early encounters took place at an undisclosed location to avoid the media.
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But that changed on 2 March when the other unions were invited to join the talks. Assurances were given that more money was available but the unions had to agree to keep the process confidential.
The result was an intensive series of meetings at the Department of Health and Social Care in Victoria Street, close to Westminster Abbey.
They took place on the ninth floor in offices which have traditionally been occupied by ministers. Health Secretary Steve Barclay had chosen to move down one floor to an open plan office with civil servants.
Union officials were intrigued to note they were meeting in an office once occupied by Matt Hancock. It was the scene of his kiss with his then-aide Gina Coladangelo, caught on CCTV and the images leaked to a newspaper. They joked about the possible presence of cameras.
The six members of the NHS staff council, representing the main health unions, along with one other official, were used to talks with employers. Sara Gorton of Unison, who chairs the council, says of the unprecedented situation they were in: “The process was unique in that the secretary of state was personally involved and negotiated directly with unions.”
What was also highly unusual was the presence of Treasury officials as well as negotiators from NHS Employers and health staff. It seemed they wanted to keep a close watch on money being offered.
One union source said it became clear we were “negotiating with people who weren’t used to it”. Another added that they had “never worked in this way before”.