Nurses across the UK are currently casting their votes on whether to take industrial action over pay and conditions.
Thérèse Coffey has said nurses will not get a higher pay offer, as they vote on strike action for the first time in decades.
The Royal College of Nursing will ballot nurses this week, asking for a higher pay award as well as action to tackle pressures caused by surging vacancies.
The RCN says the government’s offer of a 3% wage rise “makes a difference to a nurse’s wage of 72p a week”.
Speaking on Sky News, the health secretary said there was limited scope for negotiation. Coffey said: “We’ve honoured the independent pay review body’s recommendations on this. That was higher than many of the other pay rises that other public-sector workers are getting. Dare I say it, having respect of the independent pay review body, I’m not anticipating that we’ll be making any further changes.”
Coffey appeared to suggest she was sanguine about strike action. “That’s a decision for nurses who decide how to vote in this next coming month.”
On the day MPs returned to Westminster, Coffey denied Kwasi Kwarteng had brought his medium-term fiscal plan forward to 31 October as a fresh attempt to calm the markets. “I think he decided we’re in a good state and we’ll continue to discuss this across government and with parliament over the few weeks ahead,” she said.
The RCN’s general secretary, Pat Cullen, said it was an “astonishing admission from the health secretary” and said members would be receiving ballots on Tuesday. “She has already decided she won’t be listening to our half a million members. Ms Coffey has her head firmly in the sand.
“Nurses and support workers hearing this will be angry but it will make them even more determined. Ignoring nursing staff is akin to ignoring patients. We have overwhelming public support for the government to do what’s fair by nursing staff and what’s needed for safe patient care.”
MPs met on Tuesday morning for the first time since Kwarteng’s ill-received mini-budget, after which ministers and the Bank of England have struggled to contain market turmoil. Liz Truss will chair the cabinet, where several ministers are also expected to oppose any attempt to link an increase in benefits to wages, rather than inflation, which would mean a real-terms cut.
Kwarteng also appeared in front of MPs at Treasury questions, the first opportunity for many to question the chancellor since the mini-budget and the government’s subsequent U-turn on abolishing the 45p rate of tax for the wealthiest.
On Monday, the chancellor said he would bring forward a new fiscal plan with details of how to fund the tax cuts announced in the mini-budget. Overnight, new analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found Kwarteng would need to find £60bn of savings by 2026 to fill the gap from unfunded tax cuts and the costs of extra borrowing caused by a panicked reaction on international money markets.
The IFS also said the UK would find it hard to hit the chancellor’s 2.5% growth target, using economic forecasts that predicted the UK would struggle to grow at more than 0.8% on average over the next five years. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, said that while it was “technically possible” for Kwarteng to balance the books via spending cuts, public sector spending had already suffered a huge hit over the last decade and that there was “not much fat left to cut”.
Despite the change in the date for the next financial statement and the appointment of the Treasury veteran James Bowler as the department’s permanent secretary – all attempts to calm the market turmoil – the Bank of England announced on Tuesday it was expanding its emergency bond-buying operation.
The Bank said it was acting because there had been a “further significant repricing of UK government debt, particularly index-linked gilts”, which could threaten Britain’s financial stability.