Sunak says UK cannot afford ‘massive’ pay rises for nurses

Rishi Sunak has warned that the government cannot afford “massive” pay rises for nurses, as he continued to take a tough line ahead of a new wave of strikes next week.

In an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV, the prime minister said nurses “should be an exemption” to general pay restraint, but added that the NHS needed investment across the board and money was tight.

“Nurses should be an exception and that’s because they do an incredible job for all of us and they demonstrated that during the pandemic,” he said, adding that he had exempted them from wider public sector pay restraint during the Covid-19 outbreak.

He added: “I would love to give nurses a massive pay rise. Who wouldn’t? Certainly that would make my life easier, wouldn’t it?”

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Royal College of Nursing members will strike again on Monday and Tuesday next week. The organisation issued a statement saying: “As governments have failed to act, we have been forced to escalate our strike action.”

The RCN has asked for a 19 per cent pay rise, a demand rejected by both Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader.

Sunak’s rejection of a “massive” pay rise for nurses leaves room for manoeuvre and Steve Barclay, health secretary, has suggested making nurses a one-off payment or backdating a more generous pay rise — expected in April — to the beginning of 2023.

So far Sunak and the Treasury have refused to sanction any such offer, although the wave of strikes affecting many sectors of the British economy are sapping support for the prime minister.

But Sunak insisted in the interview that he was prepared to make tough choices, holding down pay to find money to invest more widely in the NHS and as part of an attempt to control inflation.

In the same interview, Sunak also promised to take tough action on migration, including bringing in a new law to stop illegal migrants remaining in the UK.

But he suggested that tackling the “small boats” issue might be a prelude to a more liberal regime for legal migration, something which business groups have been demanding to tackle acute labour shortages.

“Once we’ve got a grip of this system and we’ve largely stopped the flow of illegal migrants, we can have a much more sensible conversation as a country in saying, well, who do we want to take from where and how many?” he said.

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