Nurses are facing a £1,600 real-terms wage cut under plans being considered by the government for this year’s pay rise, with ministers expected to offer an increase of just 3% for NHS staff in England despite the soaring cost of living.
Union leaders have warned that pushing through a below-inflation settlement would leave staff who served on the pandemic frontline facing “huge real terms pay cuts”.
As ministers prepare to announce a raft of public sector pay deals over coming weeks, the TUC said nurses would suffer among the biggest losses from wages failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
NHS workers received a 3% pay deal in 2021, up from an initial 1% offered by Boris Johnson’s government after a fierce public backlash. Ministers have asked the NHS pay review body to recommend a similar award for this year, with the increase to be backdated to April 2022.
However, inflation has soared to 9% – the highest level since the early 1980s – as Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbates soaring wholesale energy prices. The Bank of England expects inflation to peak close to 10% later this year.
Average wage growth across the UK economy has picked up in recent months amid shortages of workers in several sectors. However, the increase is failing to keep pace with outgoings as households brace for the worst squeeze on living standards since modern records began in the 1950s. Public sector workers have faced weaker pay growth than average amid government restraint.
Should ministers push through a 3% settlement for NHS workers, the TUC said nurses and paramedics would suffer a £2,000 cut in the inflation-adjusted value of their pay. For maternity care assistants it would represent a real-terms cut of £1,200 and for hospital porters a £1,000 reduction.
NHS pay has been stalled for a decade, leaving workers badly exposed to skyrocketing bills, the TUC said. It calculates nurses are £5,200 poorer compared with 2010 when pay is adjusted for inflation.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “Our brilliant key workers in the NHS helped get Britain through the pandemic. But many are now at breaking point – struggling to afford the basics and put food on the table.
“Any offer that falls below the cost of living will be a hammer blow to staff morale – especially as staff shortages continue to cripple vital services – and many NHS workers may choose to vote with their feet.”
The government will announce an offer for NHS staff against a backdrop of strikes in some sectors of the economy because of sub-inflation pay offers and job cuts.
Boris Johnson said on Thursday that increasing pay to match the surge in living costs would risk a “wage price spiral”, whereby persistently higher rates of inflation can become embedded in the economy.
In comments made as he sought to reset the political agenda after more than 40% of his MPs voted to remove him from No 10, Johnson said: “I think it’s naturally a good thing for wages to go up as skills and productivity increase – that’s what we want to see.
“But when a country faces an inflationary problem you can’t just pay more and spend more, you have to find ways of tackling the underlying causes of inflation.”
In evidence to the NHS pay review body earlier this year the government said there was “extremely limited room for any further investment in pay” and that “financial restraint” was needed.
Christina McAnea, the general secretary of the Unison trade union, said soaring inflation had “made a nonsense” of a 3% pay deal.
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“Overworked, demoralised and experienced staff need much more if they are to be persuaded to stay and see the NHS through the worst crisis in its history,” she said.
A government spokesperson said no decisions had been made on the pay rise, but that it would “carefully consider the recommendations from the independent pay review bodies once we receive them”.
“We are incredibly grateful to all our NHS staff and we recognise the pressures caused by the rising cost of living,” they added.