Words By Luke Thompson
In the 2021 Budget, the government has declared that large sections of NHS workers in England will likely receive just a 1% pay increase for the upcoming year.
The change was recommended by the independent and unelected NHS pay review body. The body is made up of members who have economic expertise, however none of them have any experience in the health fields.
The pay rise will cover a total of 1.5 million NHS workers, such as nurses, receptionists, and midwives. The starting salary of a fully qualified nurse is £24,950.
It will not cover professions such as doctors, GPs or dentists, all of which have their own separate review body.
It is crucial to note the wage increase is only a proposal that was recommended to the government. Although the 1% change is not expected to shift, there will be another review held in April, with a final recommendation coming in May.
Unions across the NHS have voiced outrage at the ‘miniscule’ raise, calling instead for a 12.5% increase at the very least. Several unions have considered the possibility of a legal strike in the longer term.
In wake of the recent anger, NHS boss Sir Simon Stevens told the Daily Mail on 9 March that the original plan before the lockdown occurred was to actually have a 2.1% increase. The fact this has been reduced considering the amount of work NHS staff have conducted over the pandemic has offended many.
Since the interview by Stevens was given, Prime Minister Boris Johnson came out in defence of the move in PM questions on 10 March.
When questioned on how he can defend the action, he exclaimed “we’re in pretty tough times right now”, and the rise was the most they could have possibly done.
Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak also backed up the PM’s words, calling measures “proportionate, fair and reasonable”. He pointed to the fact the increase targeted those with below the median income in the NHS, who can expect a boost of at least an extra £250 a year.
Despite these strong declarations, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland emphasised again that the government is not mandated to take the recommendation.
Buckland said that he hoped “an appropriate pay increase could be found” and left open the possibility that the government might change their mind on the issue. A turn of events like this could echo that of the school meal issue that happened several months ago.
Indeed, echoing the words of Buckland, UK universities minister Michelle Donelan recently said on Good Morning Britain that if the government did decide to ignore the recommendation and increase it further, such a move would “not be a U-turn”.
Labour are also angered at the proposals. Their public media message has been that the news is an “ultimate kick in the teeth for NHS heroes on the front line”, according to the BBC. This war-like terminology has been a constant theme in both Labour, and the government’s messaging.
Despite this relatively strong stance, the leader of Labour, Keir Starmer, did not think that the union demand of a 12.5% increase would be a realistic figure to aim for.
Instead, he believed that the original goal of a 2.1% rise would be a very good “starting point”, one which he would settle for considering the current economic situation in the country.
Facing this barrage of criticisms, the government has been quick to defend themselves. They pointed to the fact 50% of the NHS budget already goes to NHS staff salaries (a total of £56 billion) and any more money allocated to wages would hinder funds available to health equipment and services.
Defenders of the move have also pointed to the millions of public sector workers who have had their pay frozen in this year’s budget. NHS workers are one of the few groups who have seen any increases at all.
It seems such a view is the minority, though. Chair of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, believes the move is nothing more than a formality. Far greater recognition is needed for “a workforce that has literally kept this country alive for the past 10 months”, he says.
A recent poll done by Redfield and Wilson strategy, interviewing around 2,000 people, reflected that 62% of the public were against the change, believing that the rise was far too low.
The poll also found a majority of Conservative party voters questioned believed the increase should be higher.