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The head of the Royal College of Nursing is to meet the UK health secretary after the union leader appealed directly to the prime minister to “get the job finished” by finalising a pay deal for nurses by July.

RCN members in England last month rejected an offer that would have given nurses two one-off payments covering the 2022-23 financial year, worth up to £3,789 — on top of a previously promised rise of about 4 per cent — as well as a 5 per cent consolidated pay increase for 2023-24.

However, a majority of the 14 unions that make up the NHS Staff Council backed the deal. The RCN will next week open a ballot to seek a further six-month mandate for strike action.

Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, disclosed the meeting with Steve Barclay in her keynote speech on Tuesday at the union’s annual conference in Brighton. Later she told reporters she had been “very pleased” to receive an email from the health secretary at 9pm on Monday, after writing three times asking to see him.

Although Barclay had been clear that he was not reopening pay negotiations, “it is very important I go along and state the case for our members”, she said. She hoped the meeting would take place shortly after the congress ends on Thursday, she added.

Cullen told the Sunday Times at the weekend that she was looking for a “double digit” pay increase for her members but speaking to the BBC on Monday, she suggested that demand related to the two years covered by the current offer. The offer would give nurses a consolidated rise of 9 per cent, suggesting the gap between the two sides may not be large.

However, Cullen refused to speculate on how much more her members would need to call off further strike action. She said: “I’m not going to negotiate until I can get into a negotiating room with the secretary of state.”

Asked if she was confident negotiations would reopen, she suggested nurses were innately optimistic and her aim was “to make sure that we get into that room and negotiate as quickly as possible and get the best deal for every single nurse”. 

Her message to Barclay would be “please let’s all be sensible here, let’s get round the table”, she said, adding that the NHS was losing about 80 nurses every week, adding to a total of 45,000 vacancies.

“Once he starts to seriously understand that information, and take responsibility for it, then there’s only one conclusion and that is we need to pay those nurses so that we don’t lose another single [person],” she added.

Earlier in her speech to the congress, she had told nurses if they delivered another six-month mandate for strike action across England “then government will be forced to act once more”.

She also hit out at comments from Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, who recently extolled the apprenticeship route as a way of training more nurses and doctors.

Cullen said the government would not solve the workforce challenge through apprenticeships. “The focus and the money has to be through the university-based degree,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We hugely value the work of nurses and it is disappointing that RCN leadership now want to escalate strike action.”

They added: “The majority of unions on the NHS Staff Council voted to accept the government’s fair and reasonable pay offer. We hope RCN members recognise this is a fair deal and decide it is time to bring industrial action to an end.”

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