Sir Simon Stevens also said he “can see the attractions” of a one-off bonus for NHS England staff for their work battling the pandemic, which stretched the health service to its limit.
Ultimately, the public want to see “proper recognition” of “everything that NHS staff have been through” in the past year, Stevens said.
The government is under pressure to have a rethink on NHS pay after sparking a backlash by proposing a 1% increase in salaries to the independent pay review body.
Unions, some of which have warned of strikes by health workers, fear the proposed increase could end up being a real terms cut with official forecasts suggesting inflation could rise to 1.5% this year.
Ministers have insisted 1% is all that is “affordable”.
But Downing Street has refused to rule out giving NHS staff a one-off bonus, as is happening in Scotland, amid growing concern on Tory backbenches.
Stevens said he wanted to see “properly rewarded NHS staff, particularly given everything the service has been through over the course of the last year”.
The NHS England chief executive also backed the government’s plan to wait for the independent pay review body to make a recommendation after taking evidence.
But he suggested that a bonus or a bigger pay rise might be appropriate for NHS staff.
Asked if he would support a one-off bonus for NHS staff at the Commons health committee, Stevens said: “That needs to be seen in the context of the overall judgments the government will make on NHS pay in the round.
“I agree with you that coming out of the past year and everything that NHS staff have been through, proper recognition for that is entirely right and I think goes with the grain of what the public would want to see – none of which is to ignore the broader economic context facing the country.
“Those ultimately are judgments that government has to make but as the head of the NHS, obviously I am wanting to make sure that our staff get a proper reward and not only support through that mechanism but also fundamentally, what staff want to see are a broader range of measures, including further increases in the workforce to deal with some of the intense workforce pressure that have been experienced across the health service.”
Asked again if he would back a one-off bonus, Stevens said: “That’s a discussion to be had in the round, whether that or whether underlying other action is the right approach, obviously we can see the attractions of that but that might not be the only answer.”
Stevens also stressed there was an "urgent" need for the government to allocate additional cash to the NHS from April 1 to cover Covid costs, amid concerns about a gap in funding in Rishi Sunak’s Budget last week.
“The expectation is that the NHS will receive additional funding to cover those unavoidable Covid costs certainly into the first half of the (financial) year," he said.
“There’s an urgent need now to give that funding certainty to hospitals, to local frontline services, and the beginning of the financial year is hovering into view.
“We do expect that that would be resolved very shortly.”
Earlier, justice secretary Robert Buckland said he hoped NHS staff are given an “appropriate” pay rise and insisted the 1% proposal was the “beginning of a process”.
“The final recommendations have not yet been made. We have got to remember that in large other swathes of the public sector there will be a pay freeze save for the lowest paid. I don’t think at the moment we are at the end of this process,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“I think that we need to see what the recommendations are and I very much hope that the outcome – whilst it might not be an outcome in these difficult circumstances that will result in pay rises that everybody would want to see – that the work that has been done by NHS workers will be recognised in a way that is appropriate, bearing in mind the constraints we are all under.”