Rishi Sunak has invited Britain’s trade union leaders to talks on Monday in an attempt to find a solution to the wave of disruptive strikes across the UK. The prime minister said that government departments had written to relevant unions inviting them for talks.
Workers including nurses, postal staff and train drivers have been taking industrial action to demand higher pay amid the cost-of-living crisis.
Mr Sunak had previously said he wanted a “grown-up conversation” with public sector unions on pay settlements that take effect in the financial year starting next April. But unions are demanding ministers hold talks about their calls for higher pay for their members in the current financial year.
The prime minister said he wanted to have conversations with unions “about what’s affordable, what’s reasonable, what’s responsible” for the country.
“The most pressing economic priority we have is reducing the cost of living, and getting a grip of inflation is the best way we can do that to ease the cost of living, not only for nurses but for everyone,” he added.
Ambulance workers and nurses are due to strike again this month, and the government’s problems could soon be compounded by further walkouts affecting the NHS.
The British Medical Association said on Friday that junior doctors would stage a 72-hour walkout in March, in which they would not provide emergency cover, if strikes were endorsed in a ballot that opens on Monday.
Meanwhile ballots of teachers will conclude next week, with strikes affecting schools possible from the end of the month.
Strikes are also spreading across the civil service, with Unison organising a one-day walkout on January 18th by staff at the Environment Agency, including those who maintain flood defences.
Unions gave a scornful response to the government’s offer to sit down and discuss evidence both sides would be submitting to independent review bodies to inform next year’s public sector pay deals.
The GMB, which is leading strikes at some ambulance services, said unions representing health workers had been invited to meet “soon” with health secretary Steve Barclay, but it would only suspend strikes if there was a new offer to resolve the dispute over this year’s pay settlement.
Emma Runswick, BMA deputy chair of council, said the government’s offer was “laughable” because the pay review body process was “not fit for purpose”.
Kate Bell, assistant general secretary of the TUC, said ministers were “making vague threats to the right to strike” rather than working towards a fair resolution of disputes.
Meanwhile, Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, signalled in an interview with Times Radio that she was willing to soften the union’s demand for a 19 per cent pay rise for nurses, urging Barclay to “get into a room and meet me halfway”.
Royal College of Nursing members are due to walk out for two more days this month, with ambulance workers represented by Unison also striking for one day. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023
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