ishi Sunak raised a glimmer of hope that future nursing strikes could be averted by saying he was willing to discuss pay, but indicated he would not negotiate over the current deal.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen said she had a “chink of optimism” after noticing a “little shift” in the Prime Minister’s stance on Sunday.
Mr Sunak declined to describe the NHS as being in crisis, despite Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warning the health service is not just on its knees but “on its face”.
The Prime Minister also refused to say whether he uses private healthcare as Britons struggle with long waiting lists to see GPs and receive treatment.
Ms Cullen will be among the union leaders meeting Steve Barclay for talks on Monday, but the Health Secretary wants to focus negotiations on a new pay deal for 2023/24.
The RCN head has urged ministers to meet nurses halfway on their pay rise demands for the current financial year and will strike in England on January 18 and 19 without a breakthrough.
The Prime Minister told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme that Monday’s talks are “really important”, but he indicated only the next financial year’s pay is up for discussion.
“When it comes to pay we’ve always said we want to talk about things that are reasonable, that are affordable and responsible for the country,” Mr Sunak said.
“We are about to start a new pay settlement round for this year, we’re about to start that independent process, and before that process starts the Government is keen to sit down with the unions and talk about pay and make sure they understand where we’re coming from.”
Ms Cullen told Mr Sunak to “grasp the nettle, come to the table” as she indicated cautious hopes for resolving the long-running dispute.
She told the BBC: “When I listened to that there was a chink of optimism and there was a little shift in what the Prime Minister was saying.”
However, she added of his comments: “This is not about negotiations tomorrow, it’s not about nurses’ pay and it’s not addressing the issues that are our dispute and that is addressing pay in 2022/23.”
Mr Barclay said in the Sunday Telegraph he will take a “constructive approach” to negotiations on April’s pay review, suggesting increases are on the table if unions agree to efficiency savings to make higher salaries more “affordable”.
Sir Keir has urged ministers to negotiate with striking health workers and to alleviate the sprawling NHS waiting lists, describing the institution as being in “the worst crisis we’ve ever had” after “13 years of neglect”.
The Labour leader told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “We’ve got to acknowledge that the health service is not just on its knees, it’s on its face.”
But Mr Sunak repeatedly declined to describe the NHS as being in crisis, instead saying it is “under pressure” and experiencing “unacceptable delays”, after he held emergency talks with health leaders over the weekend.
He was also told to “come clean” by Ms Cullen after refusing to say whether he uses private healthcare.
Under sustained questioning, Mr Sunak told the BBC: “As a general policy I wouldn’t ever talk about me or my family’s healthcare situation.
“But it’s not really relevant, what’s relevant is the difference I can make to the country.”
Mr Barclay has pledged to take further steps to “improve the flow through our hospitals” on Monday, with around 13,000 NHS beds blocked by delays in discharging payments.
The Sunday Times reported that an emergency winter pressure package will include a hospital discharge fund for thousands of NHS patients to be moved to care home beds.
Thousands of beds could be block-bought by the Government under the strategy, which is hoped to have an effect within a month.