On Monday, NHS unions plan stoppages 'short of strike action'. It may not feel like it if your hospital treatment has been cancelled or you are lying in a ward with fewer nurses to look after you. The stoppages come after strikes back in October failed to move the government to raise its pay offer for NHS staff. A pay review body recommended a 1% increase for all NHS staff, but the government argues that this is unaffordable and unfair. After all, the 3% 'increment' rise puts more money into the hands of higher-paid NHS workers than lower-paid ones.And some 55% of NHS staff already get an annual 3% rise: so the government is saying that any extra cash for wages should go to the workers who do not get this. So it is proposing a 1% rise for the others, but not an extra 1% on top of the existing 3% increments.
Extending the 1% rise to all NHS workers, says the government, will cost around £300 million. Some 75% of hospitals' budgets is staff costs, so the extra cost that the union proposals would impose on them would mean cutbacks in staff – some 4,000 nurses lost this year, and another 10,000 next year. That could leave hospitals unsafe, risking another Mid-Staffordshire disaster.
Many members of the public would say that NHS staff should count themselves lucky. Average pay in the UK grew just 0.1% last year, and many businesses are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. But NHS pay has been rising since 2012. More than 5,000 nurses were recruited last year, and more midwives too. Public sector pay is generally higher than private sector pay for the same job, even before you count the more secure and higher public sector pensions. Lower paid workers, including those in the NHS, have been helped by the rise in the tax threshold to £10,000. Moreover, the £133 billion NHS budget – some 18% of public spending or over £2,000 per man, woman and child – is ring-fenced, so there is no chance of it falling – unlike the fortunes of most high-street businesses.
And if you want to know how bad things can really get, look at Portugal, which slashed its health budget 17%. Our public finances are not quite in that much of a mess, but things are still tight. The UK has economic growth of 3% but it is still fragile, and there are lots of things that could still spell disaster – a potential crisis in the eurozone, ebola, tension with Russia, you name it. The British government is 1.45trillion in debt, and adding to that debt by another £100 billion a year, despite creaming off 40% of the national income in taxes.
This just is not the right time for another pay claim. And certainly not for another Winter of Discontent (with images of ambulance crews dropping 'non-emergency' cases off in the snow to find their way home). The mind shivers. It is clear the government cannot budge, so why don't we all go back to work and try to get Britain out of this mess?