March 10th 2021
Under normal circumstances public sector pay negotiations follow a fairly predictable path. The Government of the day offers low, the Unions bid high. There are discussions, sometimes threatened strike action and eventually an agreement that satisfies nobody completely but is hopefully fair and affordable is reached. Times, however, are not normal.
As a result of the pandemic the nation`s finances are in a parlous state with debt running into telephone number figures that most people cannot begin not comprehend. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has just presented a budget, generally if not exclusively well-received, designed to get the Country through to the end of Lockdown and to commence the recovery. He was refreshingly if brutally frank about tax rises that lie ahead.
In the private sector, already lagging well behind the public sector on the pay scale, thousands of people have lost jobs, thousands more are likely to do so and many good small businesses are on the wire. Others, some of them representing a lifetime`s work, will still go under in spite of the Chancellor`s best efforts to keep them afloat.
Aside from those employed in the National Health Service there is a necessary public sector pay freeze. Thousands of people – the Police, Firemen, Teachers, Transport workers for example – have worked through the pandemic and while they have security of employment not enjoyed by others will no doubt feel that their contribution to the `war effort` is not being financially recognised. So why, when we are told that the 1% offer “is all that the Country can afford”, and when others are receiving nothing, should nurses be paid more?
The answer lies, quite simply, in the Government`s promise to reward those who, over the past twelve months particularly, have given so much to save lives – too frequently at the expense of their own. That, by the way, is not just `nurses and doctors` but includes the ancillary workers who undertake tasks that most of us would not relish and, indeed, the whole of the NHS `family`.
Hard cash will not bring back those in the hospital and care sectors who have died and neither will it remove the Post Traumatic Stress and sheer physical exhaustion that many are suffering from but it will send a clear message that the Country is prepared to recognise those working in the NHS with more than just a handclap. It might also assist with the recruitment necessary to fill the thousands of vacancies within the service.
One per cent, which will be more than eroded by inflation, may be the opening shot in a pay negotiation in response to an unacceptable 12% Union demand backed up by the threat of strike action but it is most certainly not “a reward”. The Government must take a pace back from what has become an unseemly political football game, allow the pay review body to determine what is right and fair and just and affordable and then, under these exceptional circumstances, accept the result and foot the bill without challenge. The alternative by way of “reward” (in addition to a negotiated pay increase), which some have found attractive is a sizeable tax-free one-off payment.
Unless I have grossly mis-read opinion those who have had occasion to call upon the services of the NHS during the past twelve months, and probably most of the rest of the adult population as well, believe that notwithstanding the state of the nation`s finances the promised and genuine reward for service has to be forthcoming. We must send a clear message to the NHS. We keep our promises.