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NHS and the Tories: A decade of pay disputes

As the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing again consult their members over NHS pay, we look back on a decade of clashes between medics and ministers.

As NHS doctors and nurses weigh up strike action over the government’s proposed three per cent pay rise, the Tories find themselves at loggerheads with the medical community once more.

The row is the latest in a series of confrontations between NHS workers and ministers since the Conservatives entered government in 2010 and oversaw a period of swingeing cuts to public services. 

The Big Issue looks back on some of the major flashpoints between medics and ministers over the past 10 years.

Strike over pensions: 2012

On June 21, 2012, doctors took part in the profession’s first strike in nearly four decades. The dispute centred on changes to doctors’ pensions, with plans for the retirement age to rise from 65 to 68, with contributions also increased. The previous strike by doctors had been way back in 1975, when Labour’s Harold Wilson was prime minister.

‘Save our A&E’ Lewisham hospital dispute: 2013

In late January 2013, campaigners gathered outside Lewisham Hospital after Jeremy Hunt downgraded its A&E department and replaced its maternity unit with a midwife-led facility. More than 25,000 protesters had days earlier urged the health secretary to reject the proposals.

NHS Pay strike: 2014

Thousands of NHS workers, including nurses, midwives and ambulance staff, took part in the first strike over pay for more than 30 years after ministers refused to award a one per cent increase for all NHS staff. The first strike took place on October 13, 2014. Seven years of a one per cent pay cap on salaries came to an end in 2018.

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Junior doctors’ strike: 2016

The most high-profile row between NHS staff and Conservative ministers took place over controversial changes to junior doctors’ contracts. Basic pay would increase under the new terms, but other elements of the pay package were curbed, including changing what consistuted unsociable hours to exclude weekends. Strike action occurred throughout early 2016 after health secretary Jeremy Hunt decided to impose the new contracts. Following four years of dispute, junior doctors agreed to a new contract in June 2019, which saw them receive an 8.2 per cent pay rise over four years.

Pandemic row over NHS pay: 2021

After a traumatic period dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, health secretary Sajid Javid announced a proposed three per cent pay rise for NHS staff. 

The British Medical Association has now confirmed it would consult tens of thousands of hospital consultants about the pay increase, having previously said it would not accept an offer under five per cent. Last week, the Royal College of Nursing said it would consider industrial action and pledged to consult its members. 

Musician Dua Lipa was among those to call for NHS workers to receive a fair pay rise in recognition of their work during the Covid-19 crisis. Picking up her award for best female solo artist at this year’s Brit Awards in May, she said: “It’s very good to clap for them, but we need to pay them.”

Last week, new research by the GMB union claimed that nurses’ annual pay has shrunk by £6,000 in real terms over the last decade.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS staff – from doctors and nurses to paramedics and porters – are rightly receiving a three per cent pay rise this year in recognition of their extraordinary efforts throughout this global pandemic.

“This follows the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body and the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration, who considered a wide range of evidence from organisations across government, the NHS and trade unions in making the decision.”

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