Wes Streeting hints Labour will cave into BMA's pay demands

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting hints party will cave into militant BMA’s demands and give doctors ‘pay they deserve’

  • But he conceded that he couldn’t promise the party would meet ‘all demands’  
  • Last week’s three day BMA strike led to over 120k appointment cancellations 

Labour would give doctors ‘the pay they deserve’, Wes Streeting has said in a hint the party would cave into union pay demands.

Addressing the Labour party conference in Liverpool, the shadow health secretary said upping pay for striking medics is the only way to tackle the NHS recruitment crisis.

Mr Streeting also said the previous Government avoided NHS walkouts by treating healthcare staff with ‘respect’. 

He conceded, however, that he couldn’t meet ‘all’ of the British Medical Association (BMA) demands but said he would be willing to negotiate.  

Professor Philip Banfield, the BMA’s council chair who was also speaking at the conference fringe event, criticised the Government’s response to strike action and called on officials to up their pay offers to all striking medics.

Meanwhile, NHS England boss Amanda Pritchard today warned that doctors have been striking for the equivalent of a whole month in 2023 and implored unions and the Government to negotiate. 

The shadow health secretary also attacked the Prime Minister, saying one of the key reasons the previous Labour Government didn’t have any national NHS strikes was because ‘we treated staff with respect’. Speaking at the Labour party conference in Liverpool, he conceded however that he couldn’t promise the party could meet ‘all of the [BMA’s] demands’. But he argued that he would be willing to negotiate with the union

Official data released last week shows 118,026 hospital appointments in England were rescheduled due to a three-day walkout by British Medical Association (BMA) consultants and junior doctors earlier this week. Radiographers also joined the picket lines on Tuesday. A further 4,415 appointments in mental health, learning disability and community settings were estimated to have been also cancelled

Mr Streeting told the event: ‘I don’t see a way to address the recruitment and retention crisis in the NHS and in social care which doesn’t involve giving people the respect, the conditions and the pay they deserve. 

‘One of the reasons we didn’t have any national strikes in the NHS under the last Labour government is because we treated staff with respect. 

‘We worked with staff in partnership.’

He added: ‘I can’t promise that an incoming Labour Government will be able to meet all of the demands that Phil and his colleagues have made and certainly not to do that overnight. We would be willing to negotiate.’

Junior doctors (who earn up to £63,000) and consultants (who pocket £134,000, on average) have taken to picket lines in a bid for a pay rise of up to 35 per cent.

In the latest set of strikes, the two groups of medics staged a joint 72-hour walkout. Health chiefs warned the action was hampering care for cancer and heart patients and women in needed of C-sections.

Read more: NHS strikes behind almost 1.2million appointment cancellations as bill for walkouts hits £1.1billion 

Action among NHS staff, which kicked off last December, have seen 1.2million appointments cancelled and cost more than £1billion, official figures suggest.

Mr Streeting admitted he was more sympathetic to junior doctors than consultants, arguing ‘people aren’t about to get out their violins for consultants in terms of pay in the context of the cost of living crisis’. 

He added: ‘I don’t think there are consultants who are lying awake at night worrying about how to pay the bills.’

However, he acknowledged consultants rarely cite pay as the main reason behind taking to the picket lines. 

He said: ‘What they are saying is, “I’m striking for patients, I’m striking for the NHS and I’m striking for the conditions I’m working under which are intolerable and stopping patients [getting] the care that they deserve”.’

However, Professor Banfield criticised the idea of singling out consultants and said that the Government would need to increase their pay offer to all striking staff to resolve the dispute. 

The Times reported that he said: ‘Trying to settle with one group of doctors, and picking off one branch of practice, does not solve the underlying dispute and it does not resolve the issue, which is about how do you restore the value?’

Last month Mr Streeting, MP for Ilford North, said meeting the 35 per cent pay rise demanded by junior doctors is ‘not a policy that Labour will be able to afford’ and warned medics face waiting until the 2030s before their pay reaches this level.

He hit out at the strikes for inflicting ‘untold misery on patients’ who are ‘waiting in pain’ for vital appointments and operations that have been cancelled — and are ‘no doubt’ dying while stuck in the queue for care. 

Responding to his comments today, health minister Maria Caulfield accused Labour of taking ‘the easy way out’.

She said: ‘Wes Streeting’s suggestion that Labour would meet the eye-watering pay demands of militant union leaders shows that they will always take the easy way out.’

Ms Caulfield claimed that accepting the demands of unions would cause inflation to ‘spiral’, hit household finances and hold back the economy.

The Tory MP for Lewes added: ‘Only the Conservatives will take the long-term decisions for a brighter future which will get inflation under control, get the economy growing and ensure we can provide high-quality public services for the future.’

Prior to this week’s walk-outs, junior doctors had staged 22 days of strike action, with consultants taking to the picket lines on six separate days. Radiographers previously took 48-hour strike action from 25 to 27 July. The strike days this week coincided with Rishi Sunak’s first Tory party conference as leader and prime minister

Professor Philip Banfield, head of the BMA’s council who was speaking alongside Streeting at the conference fringe event, also criticised the Government’s response to strike action and called on it to make offers to all branches of the union

NHS data revealed on Friday that 118,026 hospital appointments in England were rescheduled following the three-day walkout by BMA consultants and junior doctors last week. Radiographers also joined the picket lines on Tuesday.

A further 4,415 appointments in mental health, learning disability and community settings were estimated to have been also cancelled.

It means that since NHS industrial action kicked-off in December, almost 1.2million appointments have now been cancelled. 

But the figure is thought to be even higher as not all NHS trusts share data on cancelled appointments and some hospitals no longer book surgeries and consultations for strike days.

Meanwhile, NHS board papers released last week confirmed that the action is estimated to have cost the health service £1.1billion since December. 

NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard today warned that hospital doctors have taken 720 hours of industrial action since March — equivalent to 24-hours-a-day for a month.

She said: ‘We know that more than a million appointments have had to be rescheduled, and significantly more displaced, potentially impacting hundreds of thousands more patients. And, of course, IA (industrial action) is having an impact on urgent and emergency care too.

‘We will continue the dialogue on how best to support derogation requests and maintain safe cover for as long as we need to.

‘But it goes without saying that what we would all prefer is for serious discussions between government and unions to resume, with a view to finding a resolution before what we already know will be a challenging winter.’ 

In July, the Government gave junior doctors a pay rise worth between 8.1 and 10.3 per cent. It means pay for a first year junior doctor jumped from £29,300 to £32,300.

Consultants were handed an extra 6 per cent, roughly, as part of the deal, meaning their basic full-time pay increased from £88,300 to £93,600. 

When taking extra payments into account, the average consultants’ earnings now sits at £134,000.

In July, Rishi Sunak said this pay offer was ‘final’. 

However, junior doctors have called for a 35 per cent pay rise, while consultants have set their demand at 11 per cent. The BMA argues medics have seen their pay erode by up to 35 per cent over the last 15 years.

The Government argues that to restore real terms pay to 2008/09 levels on this basis would cost over £2billion on top of the existing 22/23 award. 

This is over 1.3 per cent of the total NHS budget — £152.6bn for 2022/23 — it claims.  

The BMA has urged Health Secretary Steve Barclay to make a ‘credible offer’ to the union to get them round the table.

But Mr Barclay, who has not met the BMA in months, has accused the union of using ‘militant tactics’. 

Future strike dates have not yet been announced. But last Tuesday the union pledged to continue until the next general election. 

Professor Banfield, council chair of the BMA, said NHS staff are prepared to strike until the next general election, expected by December 2024, ‘and beyond’ to secure a bigger pay rise. 

Speaking at a BMA rally outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last week, he added: ‘We will not let down future generations of doctors. We will strike until the next general election – and beyond if that is what it takes.’ 

He said he is confident that the BMA will get a mandate from members to continue industrial action.

However, consultants have paused strike action to create a ‘window’ for talks. 

They urged the Prime Minister to let the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) get involved to try to bring an end to their pay dispute. 

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