Ministers are squaring up to one of the big public sector trades unions for a battle over pay. Like the first buds of Spring, this story feels like the politics of the ‘old normal’ might be coming back after the long pandemic winter.
Health unions are furious that the Government is proposing to give NHS workers just a one per cent pay increase. Is this fair?
On the one hand, Health Service workers have been on the front line in the fight against Covid-19, with some putting in traumatic shifts on high-mortality wards during the worst phase of the crisis.
Critics have also pointed out that the decision sits very badly alongside last year’s decision to award teachers “the biggest pay rise in fifteen years“, even as the education unions fought tooth and nail against efforts to get children back to school. And speaking of holes dug in 2020:
At a Downing St news conference on May 15 last year, Matt Hancock said: “When it comes to how we reward people for their efforts in this crisis, what I can tell you is that as the Health Secretary I will be making sure that we fight to have that fair reward.”
— Jon Craig (@joncraig) March 5, 2021
Likewise, the Chancellor’s decision to turn on the taps to see Britain through the pandemic has some people asking: why not just add a pay bump for NHS workers to the bill?
But as our editor has previously explored, there is another side to the story of the last twelve months. Furlough may have spared millions from unemployment, but it still represented a 20 per cent income cut – and it fell exclusively on the private sector. Moreover a pay rise, unlike a one-off bounty of the sort offered by the Scottish Government, would be a permanent increase in public expenditure and couldn’t be written off as a one-off exceptional expense.
Sunak might consider copying Nicola Sturgeon’s policy instead, but the First Minister was heavily criticised for a policy which gave as much to the best-off NHS staff as front-line workers.
Given that, and in light of Rishi Sunak’s apparent determination to start getting the public finances in order at some point in this Parliament (at least, probably this Parliament), there is a strong case for focusing public expenditure on areas which will best facilitate private-sector growth and support those who have been unable to work during the pandemic, especially young people who have stalled at the very start of their careers.
(There’s no salvaging the optics of the parallel pay rise for teachers, though. Just evidence of the woeful state of the Conservatives’ battle against the Blob.)
Even without substantial pay increases, health is going to consume more and more public spending in the years ahead. Absent a big shift in public attitudes towards paying much higher taxes in perpetuity, at some point the Government is going to have to confront the hard business of NHS and social care reform. Will the Party’s new, post-2019 positioning make that harder? Or will all the spending have given ministers some credit they can spend on driving change without being immediately seen as the ‘same old Tories’?