Matt Hancock has sparked fresh anger over nurses’ pay by claiming NHS staff will get a salary “rise” – even though his 1% offer is less than forecast inflation.
In a testy evidence session before MPs, the health secretary doubled down on his hardline stance on the pay offer, claiming that as current inflation was 0.9% it was “simply a matter of fact” that the deal was an increase in wages.
But with the government’s official economic advisers forecasting the cost of living will rise to between 1.5% and 1.8% over 2021/22, trade unions and Labour pounced on Hancock’s remarks as being deliberately misleading.
Asked directly by health select committee chair Jeremy Hunt whether the 1% was a real terms pay rise or cut, Hancock replied: “Inflation is below 1% and therefore a proposed 1% pay rise is indeed a pay rise and that’s simply a matter of fact.”
He added that NHS staff had been spared a wider pay freeze for public sector staff, adding “we put in place evidence reflecting what is affordable”.
Even on Hancock’s own definition of current inflation, which stands at 0.9%, his pay offer would amount to 0.1%.
But the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast inflation to rise markedly over coming years, turning the 1% offer into a real terms salary cut.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said that Hancock was “digging in” but the public were clear that they backed a proper pay rise to recognise the real worth of NHS after the pandemic of the past year.
The RCN has taken the rare step of preparing for strike action over the 1% offer and is instead demanding 12.5%.
A spokesperson said: “The government is digging in despite public anger and clear support for NHS staff. In the middle of a pandemic, ministers cannot justify giving just £3.50 extra per week to nursing staff.”
Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “Inflation and freezes to tax allowances mean a 1% increase is neither a wage rise, nor an acceptable way to treat health workers who’ve given everything this past year.
“Matt Hancock should stop trying to defend the indefensible. The government needs a rethink as even its own backbenchers have made clear. Without a decent pay rise this year, the NHS will struggle to hold on to its increasingly fed-up workforce.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Matt Hancock knows full well that with the OBR expectations for inflation, he is imposing a pay cut on NHS staff in a pandemic.
“Ministers should take this pay cut off the table and start talks with staff on a multi-year pay deal that reflects their worth and address recruitment and retention in the NHS.”
Earlier this week, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner told the Mirror that even the 2.1% originally planned by ministers before the pandemic was “a small amount”. “The honest way of approaching this is not to put a ceiling on it,” she said.
During his evidence, Hancock also hinted that NHS chief Simon Stevens would soon get the certainty he wanted on funding, with just days until the start of the next financial year.
“Thankfully we are in a far better place in the pandemic than we were in November when the Spending Review was settled, nor indeed in January or February.
“So working out the exact operational costs will be published shortly but what all parts of the NHS know is the direct operational costs of Covid will be covered.”