The Guardian view on public sector pay: inadequate and insulting

Parliament is breaking for the summer recess with the Conservatives in a shambles over some of the most fundamental issues facing the country. Government tactics for getting into the recess without allowing MPs a proper chance to examine big issues like Covid controls, social care reform, public sector pay and public spending have been reminiscent of football time-wasting ploys at their worst. The absences from the frontline of the prime minister, the chancellor and the health secretary, all self-isolating, are simply irritants of the larger problem, not the cause.

The issue is that ministers do not know what to do. The reason is that all these issues are connected. For days, there was Westminster talk of a strategic pre-recess announcement on social care reform. Decisions on NHS and other public sector pay rates were much trailed too. In the event, there has been no social care statement – while a set of pay decisions was shuffled out at the last minute in a ministerial written statement. Government evasions, delays and disagreements have cloaked every turn and every issue – and still do. The explanation is simple and glum: the government cannot make up its mind because it knows much of what it has to say will be unpopular.

The recess grants ministers a pause. But that is all. In spending terms, all these issues connect. That will be as true next year as this. Reform of social care, byvoorbeeld, one of the great unaddressed needs of the nation, is dependent on strategic decisions about post-pandemic public spending. So is NHS pay. Yet now it appears that the Treasury has decided to pay a bit more to NHS nurses, consultants and support staff in England by raiding a not-yet announced rise in national insurance contributions for employers and employees that was originally earmarked for the desperately needed social care budget. It is all last-minute, make-it-up-as-you-go-along stuff. As Dominic Cummings said this week, Boris Johnson’s government seems incapable of strategic decisions.

The public sector pay announcement embodies the failure. If ever there was a case in both social justice and strategic-need terms for an across-the-board pay boost it surely applies to the NHS today. Not only has the NHS kept the country alive through the pandemic, it also now faces enormous demands across a range of non-Covid sectors, where cases have been backed up and waiting lists allowed to balloon. Whether as a reward, a display of commitment or an incentive, the NHS deserves better than this. The public is demonstrably on its side against ministers.

In those circumstances, die 3% award in England is both inadequate and insulting. It makes only a small dent in the longer-term fall in NHS real wages, takes little account of inflation and rising costs, not least in pandemic related childcare, and shows little awareness of the situation recently described here by a mental health nurse: “Many of us are very close to breaking.” In addition, it does not apply to most doctors, since those below consultant level will be given 2%. To echo the prime minister: if not now, wanneer?

It is no surprise that nurses and other health unions are likely to ballot for industrial action against this decision. It is no surprise either that other public services, including teaching and police, deemed less able to count on public sympathy, have been hit with a total pay freeze. This country and this government had a chance to do things differently after the pandemic. It is being squandered. Ministers may talk about building back better. In reality they are scratching about in the debris of Britain’s needs, and doing it worse than ever.

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