Hunt ‘risking repeat of junior doctors’ row’ with plan to change NHS pay

The government has triggered a row with NHS staff by unveiling plans to overhaul their pay, including how much they receive for working antisocial shifts.

Health unions have warned Jeremy Hunt that he is risking a repeat of the acrimonious junior doctors’ dispute by seeking to reduce the extra amounts staff get for weekend and overnight working.

The health secretary has also aroused anger by making it clear that he wants to change increments – extra cash staff receive that helps increase their take-home pay.

Unions voiced their opposition after Hunt disclosed his intentions in an interview with the Health Service Journal, saying he wanted to change the way more than 1 million NHS personnel in England are paid by introducing a “more professional pay structure”.

Staff affected by any shake-up include nurses, midwives, radiographers, therapists and dozens of other types of health professionals whose pay is set under a system called agenda for change.

The chancellor, Philip Hammond, said in the budget last week that the government would provide money to fund a pay rise next year above the 1% planned, but only in return for productivity improvements.

Hunt prompted particular suspicion by telling the journal the contract imposed on England’s 55,000 junior doctors in 2016 after a bitter year-long dispute, which prompted eight walkouts by trainee medics, was “quite sensible”. He suggested it could be a basis for the revised contract he wants to see, with those who work more regularly at weekends receiving higher pay.

“Across the public sector we have been wanting to move towards more professional pay structures. I think the biggest area that we have wanted to reform for a long time is the system of increments – in particular, payments that simply relate to time served rather than any measurable increase in professional abilities,” he said.

Ministers do not want to reduce the overall NHS pay bill, he insisted. “This isn’t a money-saving thing but about moving to modern professional pay structures,” Hunt said.

But the Royal College of Nursing, which represents more than 300,000 nurses, accused him of being “ill-briefed on the increments system”.

“They are not automatic and recognise career progression, not simply time in a post,” a spokesperson said. The union welcomed the intention of maintaining antisocial hours payments, but warned Hunt: “We will not support any reduction in terms and conditions.”

Sara Gorton, the head of health at the Unison union, said: “If the government is expecting staff to pay for their own wage rise, it’ll be a very short set of talks indeed.”

Jon Skewes, a senior official at the Royal College of Midwives, said Hunt had ignored advice unions gave him in a recent initial round of discussions about NHS pay “to explore more and talk less”.

“His intervention has not helped the prospect of a deal on pay in the NHS. Last week’s budget was helpful on funding, but the secretary of state, by citing the junior doctors’ dispute, has blundered,” he said.

“[The RCM] will not be prepared to reduce the fair compensation that midwives and other staff in the NHS receive for providing a service that is there every day, every night, every weekend, every bank holiday, every Christmas holiday.”

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Alarm bells will be ringing loudly following this admission from Jeremy Hunt that he’s seeking to apply the junior doctors’ dispute as a template for pay talks across the NHS.

“His confrontational approach to that contract led to the first junior doctor strike ever and created a huge amount of worry and uncertainty for patients while the dispute was resolved.”

Health unions want a pay rise of 3.9% next year, plus a further £800 to help make up for the erosion of their income over the past seven years of pay freezes and the 1% cap.