NHS staff across England were supposed to get a higher pay rise, the head of the country’s health service has told MPs and he called for the pay review body to be allowed to do its work without “fear or favour”.
Giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday morning Sir Simon Stevens confirmed the NHS long-term plan would have seen more than a million staff on the NHS Agenda for Change contract given a 2.1 per cent pay rise from April.
In comments that will probably fuel the row over the government’s handling of the NHS pay rise, Sir Simon said: “Coming out of the past year, and everything that NHS staff have been through, proper recognition for that is entirely right and I think goes with the grain of what the public would want to see.”
He told MPs that when the NHS long-term plan was published, the financial assumptions underpinning it clearly showed a pay rise higher than that now promised by ministers.
He acknowledged things had changed since 2019 but said: “At the time, the working assumption was that there would be available 2.1 per cent for the costs of the Agenda for Change pay group in 2021-22, together with the overhang from the 2021 elements of the multi-year Agenda for Change pay deal.”
He added: “In a publicly funded, democratically accountable health service, the government of the day gets to decide what NHS pay should be, but you would expect me as the head of the health service to obviously want to see properly rewarded NHS staff, particularly given everything that the service has been through, and they've been through, over the course of the last year.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has said the government offered NHS staff “as much as we can give”.
But a senior cabinet minister has said he hopes NHS staff will be given an “appropriate” pay rise, suggesting the government could still perform a U-turn over the proposed 1 per cent increase.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said that the pay review process had only just begun.
“The final recommendations have not yet been made,” he told BBC Breakfast. “We have got to remember that in large other swathes of the public sector there will be a pay freeze save for the lowest paid. I don’t think at the moment we are at the end of this process.
“I think that we need to see what the recommendations are, and I very much hope … that the work that has been done by NHS workers will be recognised in a way that is appropriate.”
Sir Simon said the two NHS pay review bodies needed to be allowed to do their work.
He told committee chair Jeremy Hunt: “I think the right way to resolve this is the path that actually the government has set out, which is to ask the independent pay review bodies to look at all of the evidence in the round, the evidence from government, the evidence from the staff side and then be able to independently make a fair recommendation so that NHS staff get the pay and the reward that they deserve.
“The purpose of having an independent review body is so that it will consider the different evidence that is put forward by different groups through that process, and then can make a recommendation. Ultimately, of course government gets to decide whether to accept those recommendations, but we are in the process where the review body needs to be able to do its work without fear or favour, and then put forward that recommendation and its justification for so doing.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “The head of the NHS has confirmed what we already knew. The Conservatives have broken their promise to the NHS and are cutting nurses’ pay.”
During a debate on NHS pay in the House of Commons, care minister Helen Whately told MPs the 2.1 per cent figure was not just for a pay rise but for other existing costs.
She said: “That figure covers not only this pay rise for the NHS workforce, but the pay deals that have been agreed for staff in other multi-year pay deals, pay progression, and other investment in the workforce.”
Sir Simon also confirmed the NHS had so far not been given any indication of funding for coronavirus costs beyond the next year.
Mr Hunt highlighted the Office for Budget Responsibility conclusions that the chancellor had set aside no extra money to cover the costs of test and trace, vaccinations or dealing with the huge backlog of operations.
Sir Simon told the committee it was his “expectation” that money would be made available but he emphasised what he said was an “urgent need now to give that funding certainty to hospitals, to local frontline services”.
He said: “For the year we’re about to go into, beginning on 1 April, we have the previously agreed NHS long-term funding settlement. Over and above that, in the November spending review the chancellor provided additional funding to make a start on catching up on the backlogs of care that have arisen as a result of Covid, including on waiting list operations, and for new needs that have arisen for mental health services.
“During the course of this past year, as you say, the NHS has been provided with the extra costs of looking after Covid patients and all of the indirect consequences for Covid care. The majority of Covid hospitalised patients that we’ve been looking after have actually been admitted since that November spending review. We’ve obviously had an incredibly tough December, January and February across the health service.
“There are going to be continuing Covid-related needs and costs spilling into the new financial year. And so, the expectation is that the NHS will receive additional funding to cover those unavoidable Covid costs.”
Responding to Sir Simon’s comments, Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The government should be listening to this growing chorus of voices telling them to reconsider the insulting 1 per cent offer.
“Sir Simon Stevens is right to say that NHS staff should be paid fairly. Nursing staff have put themselves on the line for the last year and will leave careers they love if they continue to be taken for granted.
“More nurses means better care. The public know this and it is time ministers acted to keep them.”