UK offers public sector workers pay rise as doctors strike

Britain says it will offer doctors and teachers hikes of at least 6 percent as thousands of medics begin a five-day strike.

People hold placards as they attend a protest by junior doctors, amid a dispute with the government over pay, at University College London Hospitals in London, Britain, March 13, 2023. REUTERS/May James
Thousands of British workers, including doctors and teachers, have been striking sporadically for months amid soaring inflation [File: May James/Reuters]

The United Kingdom has offered millions of public sector workers pay raises in a bid to end strikes triggered by a cost-of-living crisis, as thousands of junior doctors walked off the job in protest for five days.

Britain’s government decided to accept recommendations for pay increases, Treasury Chief Secretary John Glen said on Thursday, giving doctors and teachers at least 6 percent increases.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government announced its decision, having considered the recommendations of a series of independent pay review boards.

The pay increases are below the current 8.7 percent inflation rate but are aimed at bridging the gap following a bout of huge industrial unrest across Britain over falling real wages.

Junior doctors will now get a 6 percent pay uplift and a lump-sum pay increase of 1,250 pounds ($1,633.25), while teachers would get 6.5 percent. He also announced pay increases for police (7 percent) and armed forces (5 percent).

Glen said there would be no new borrowing or spending to fund the increases although teachers’ pay rises would be funded by a reallocation of the existing education department budget.

The development came as Britain’s state-funded healthcare service faces what is being described as its longest-ever strike as tens of thousands of doctors in England commenced their latest walkout.

So-called junior doctors, those who are at the early stages of their careers in the years after medical school, started their strike at 7am, with many of them making their case for a 35 percent pay rise in picket lines outside hospitals across England.

The British Medical Association (BMA), the doctors’ union, has asked for the rise to bring junior doctors’ pay back to 2008 levels once inflation is taken into account.

Meanwhile, the workload of England’s 75,000 or so junior doctors has swelled as patient waiting lists for treatment are at record highs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Today marks the start of the longest single walkout by doctors in the NHS’s history, but this is still not a record that needs to go into the history books,” said BMA leaders Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi.

They urged the government to drop its “nonsensical precondition” of not talking while strikes are announced.

Arjan Singh, a 27-year-old junior doctor on a picket line outside London’s University College Hospital, said the NHS has been running on “goodwill and now this is the last chance to change that”.

He said his colleagues were planning to leave for countries that “care about their doctors”.

“Doctors have realised they work in a global market, they’re not restricted to this country,” he added.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said: “This five-day walkout by junior doctors will have an impact on thousands of patients, put patient safety at risk and hamper efforts to cut NHS waiting lists … A pay demand of 35 percent or more is unreasonable and risks fuelling inflation, which makes everyone poorer.”

Britain, like other countries, is grappling with high inflation for the first time in years.

Price rises were first stoked by supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic and then by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy and food prices soaring. Though inflation has come down slightly from its peak to 8.7 percent, it remains far above the 2 percent level the Bank of England is tasked to target.

The government’s latest offer, after more than a year of elevated inflation, is likely to anger trade unions who have said school and hospital budgets cannot bear the cost of wage increases without cutting spending in other areas.

Sunak, facing an election next year and trailing badly in opinion polls, has promised to halve inflation and ministers have stressed the danger that increasing wages too far would undermine that goal and could entrench rising prices.

Source: News Agencies