Rishi Sunak accused of personally holding up deal to end doctors’ strikes | Rishi Sunak


Rishi Sunak has been accused of personally delaying a deal to end doctors' strikes in England, despite warnings from the Department of Health and NHS England that waiting lists will continue to grow unless the labor dispute is resolved.

Sources told the Guardian that it had been made clear “extensively and repeatedly” to the Prime Minister that there would be no progress on his promise to reduce NHS waiting lists until an agreement is reached.

An official said Sunak had been a 'barrier' to progress during discussions with consultants and junior doctors late last year due to fears a more generous offer would lead to calls for deals higher salaries across the health service, particularly for nurses.

Young doctors staged a series of strikes after negotiations between the British Medical Association and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed, with the doctors' union saying the government had been unable to present a credible offer.

Consultants, meanwhile, narrowly rejected the government's latest pay offer last month, urging ministers to improve the proposed deal. Talks between the BMA and junior ministers continue.

Sources told the Guardian that Sunak had been warned that the government would not meet waiting list targets in almost every meeting he had with NHS England and the DHSC. Downing Street aides were also briefed in their own meetings with health officials.

The documents marked “officially sensitive” which were sent to Number 10 and were seen by the Guardian, warned in bold letters that “in all scenarios, if industrial action continues, waiting lists will not decrease” .

Sunak admitted on Monday that he had failed to deliver on his promise to reduce waiting lists, one of five key commitments he made when taking office and on which he said his own competence would be judged. The situation in England has actually gotten worse.

“We haven't made enough progress,” he said when asked about his commitment during an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV. Asked if that meant he had failed, he replied: “Yes, we did. » He later appeared to blame the situation on NHS strikes.

A source suggested that Victoria Atkins, the health secretary, had been “reinforced” by Downing Street, after initially indicating she was prepared to meet for further discussions and had yet to do so. the government's final offer.

However, DHSC officials said Atkins only offered to continue negotiations if the strikes were first called off, adding that both disputes went beyond pay deals and involved broader issues, including working conditions.

Whitehall sources said Steve Barclay, who was health secretary until he changed positions in the November reshuffle, pushed Sunak to resolve the dispute but was not given the autonomy to do it himself.

A senior NHS source said Atkins was hampered by Number 10 in its efforts to end separate, but overlapping, conflicts between consultants and junior doctors.

“NHS England has made it clear to the government how strikes are seriously hampering efforts to reduce the waiting list,” the source said.

“The Department of Health and Social Care knows that the Prime Minister's commitment will not be fulfilled until the strikes end. And while there have been some minor improvements in waiting lists, it will be impossible to catch up [while walkouts continue].

“It is clear from the intermittent nature of the talks between the DHSC and the BMA that the Secretary of State does not have a free hand to negotiate.”

A second well-placed NHS source said: “NHS leaders are very clear that the provision of [Sunak’s] engagement on the elective target would be impossible without resolving the strikes.

“Both NHS England and the Department of Health have argued that if you want to achieve the elective target it will be very, very, very difficult to do so without resolving the doctors' strikes.

“NHS England leaders believe that the junior doctors’ strikes and the elective target are clearly intertwined with each other.”

More than 1.3 million NHS appointments in England have been postponed due to industrial action, according to the DHSC. Sunak sought to blame them for the heavy waiting list, which stood at 7.6 million in November but fell by 96,000 that month, when there was no strike.

The unions have always said that ministers could avoid strikes by offering better salaries and have denied being responsible for the waiting list, pointing out that it increased by almost 5 million between 2010 and 2022, while it There was no industrial action to blame.

Professor Phil Banfield, chair of the BMA council, said: “Doctors are already working above and beyond their expectations. If the Prime Minister would simply allow his Health Secretary to make credible salary offers instead of perpetually procrastinating, doctors would be free to start reducing waiting lists again. He can no longer renounce his responsibilities.

Sources close to the government said Sunak believed every euro of taxpayers' money had to be spent carefully and was therefore reluctant to sign a more generous deal.

Others said it was a false economy as the bill for NHS staff to cover strikes hit £2bn at the start of December and is expected to rise to £3bn, or more than the amount required to resolve the dispute.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Young doctors have received a fair pay rise, averaging 8.8%. In addition to this salary increase, we also proposed additional investments for young doctors during the last negotiations.

“If they come back to the table with reasonable expectations, we remain hopeful that we will find a path forward.” We want everyone to focus on patients and reduce waiting times for them, and we urge the BMA to work with us in the best interests of patients.



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