Nursing union leader Pat Cullen has called on Health Secretary Stephen Barclay to restart pay negotiations with a proposed rise in double digits.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members will begin a new ballot for strike action on May 23 after the existing six-month mandate ran out at the start of the month.
“They (ministers) owe that to nursing staff not to push them to have to do another six months of industrial action right up to Christmas,” she said ahead of Sunday’s RCN congress in Brighton, telling Mr Barclay talks need to “start off in double figures”.
“It’s not right for patients. But whose responsibility is it to resolve it? It is this government.”
Having pushed for a 19% pay rise, she had advised members to accept an offer of 5% – a deal they rejected despite being accepted by 14 other unions.
A union spokesman said: “The negotiations covered two financial years which resulted in a consolidated NHS pay increase of nine per cent. When our members rejected that, it is clear they expect an offer into double figures.”
Ms Cullen added: “It’s not so long ago since the Prime Minister went on the media and very publicly said nurses are an exception,” she said when asked why nurses warrant a larger increase than other healthcare workers.
“I would totally agree with him… they should be made an exception because they are exceptional people.”
Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said that he found her remarks “very curious”.
“Pat Cullen just recently was encouraging her members to settle for the pay rise that was put on the table, that would see £5,000 go into the pockets this year of hard-working nurses,” the Energy Secretary told Sky News.
“I thought this was a great settlement. I thought it’s terrific that it had been reached. It’s frankly rather confusing now that having encouraged her members to accept that deal, she seems to now be coming back and saying the opposite.”
The mental health nurse, 58, from Co Tyrone, said patient safety was “at the centre of everything that we do”.
“We will do nothing that will add further risk to the patients that we look after,” she said, saying increased pay would see nurses return to the profession and ease a staffing crisis.
She warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak not to take her members lightly.
“Looking back on this pay offer, I may personally have underestimated the members and their sheer determination,” she said.
“I think what I would be saying to the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is ‘Don’t – don’t make that same mistake, don’t underestimate them’.
“Nurses believe it’s their duty and their responsibility because this government is not listening to them on how to bring it (the NHS) back from the brink and the message to the Prime Minister is that they are absolutely not going to blink first in these negotiations.”