Health Secretary Matt Hancock has swerved questions from MPs over the recommendation to give NHS workers in England a 1% pay rise.
Junior health minister Helen Whately was sent in his place to respond to an urgent question from Labour.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth had demanded Mr Hancock appear in the House of Commons to make a statement on the recommendations.
Ms Whately suggested she had been sent to respond to Labour’s urgent question as it was International Women’s Day.
Asking his urgent question, Mr Ashworth said: “I am grateful for the minister (Ms Whately), but where is the Secretary of State?
“Why isn’t the Secretary of State here to defend a Budget that puts up tax for hard-working family and cuts pay for hard-working nurses?
“The Secretary of State has stood at that despatch box repeatedly waxing lyrical, describing NHS staff as heroes, saying they are the very best of us, and now he is cutting nurses’ pay.
“Last summer, when asked by Andrew Marr if nurses deserved a real-terms pay rise, he replied, ‘well, of course, I want to see people properly rewarded, absolutely’ – and yet now he is cutting nurses’ pay.”
Responding to Mr Ashworth, Ms Whately told the Commons: “Well, thank you, and I thank the shadow secretary of state for his welcome to me this afternoon.
“I would actually say that I wonder why, this International Women’s Day, it is a shame that he hasn’t got a female colleague at the despatch box on his side this afternoon.”
Ms Whately continued: “In these difficult times, the Government has submitted its evidence to the pay review bodies and, as I said in my opening statement, those pay review bodies will report back to us.
“The pay review bodies will look at a wide range of evidence, including, for instance, evidence from the trade unions, the situation of inflation and also the wider situation with the economy and pay levels.
“They will report back and we will, of course, look at their recommendations very carefully.”
Ms Whately later accused opposition MPs of “fuelling the level of anger by calling a pay rise a pay cut”, adding: “NHS staff are getting a pay rise.”
But senior Conservative MP Robert Halfon told the Commons: “Whilst absolutely recognising the economic constraints and the £2 trillion debt that our country owes, will she reconsider and at least propose a larger increase for lower-paid NHS workers?”
Ms Whately, in her reply, said: “We’ve submitted to the pay review body our envelope for funding the 1% the Government says it can afford and we will be looking at their recommendations when they come back.”
She added there is an existing commitment for lower-paid staff to receive at least a £250 pay rise and this applies to the NHS.
Conservative Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) suggested the Government looks at funding any recommended pay rise above 1% from new sources rather than having to “scrimp and save” from other parts of the NHS budget.
Ahead of the urgent question, Downing Street declined to rule out a one-off bonus for NHS workers amid continued anger over the pay recommendation.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have been clear that we think the 1% pay rise is what is affordable.
“I’m not going to comment on speculation. We’ve set out what we think is affordable, it’s now for the pay review body to look at that and look at the other evidence and come forward with their recommendation.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at a Downing Street briefing, said recruitment of staff was “really crucial for the wellbeing of nurses” when asked about the pay rise proposal.
He said: “One of the most important things that nurses tell me they want to see is more nurses to help them on the wards, to help them cope with the pandemic and everything else.”
But Dame Donna Kinnair, Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary, said: “The Prime Minister is sounding increasingly out of touch with the impact of his own proposal.”