Photo: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Sara Gorton thought the Covid pandemic was as bad as things could be for the NHS. But now, as nurses, ambulance personnel and other health workers are planning new strikes in an already kneeling ward, the woman leading wage negotiations for health unions believes she’s wrong. “It’s worse because it’s a situation we’re in because of political choice,” she says.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his ministers like to portray union leaders as left-wing militants, the Arthur Scargills of today. By doing so, they believe, they can turn the public against the strikers as disagreements drag on and sympathy dwindles.
But Gorton, head of health at Unison, the nation’s largest union, and head of the NHS Staff Council, which represents staff in salary negotiations with ministers and employers, does not fit that stereotype at all.
Mild by nature but ready to tell some brutal truth, it’s a deadly weapon for those fighting for better pay. Gorton, who has 20 years of experience in NHS pay rounds, is furious at the political games being played with healthcare.
Covid was global and beyond our control, he says. But the current disaster is being done by Tory politicians in Westminster. “With the pandemic, we felt like we were reacting to something that was no one’s fault. However, this does not seem to care about the decision makers, especially about financing.”
It’s a strong accusation against those he’s negotiating with but he seems confident about when to jeopardize things and when to act like business around a table. He describes his meetings with ministers and officials as “always civil”, including last Monday, which gave the first tentative signs of progress. “They are friendly. We don’t sit in rooms and yell at people. But my steel side is showing up. I’m not a toy.
This is obvious as he again criticizes the ministers and says the unions are in tune with the people. “If you really cared about population, you’d see all the opinion polls, social attitudes surveys that show that people in the UK value good and efficient healthcare above almost anything else, and you would reflect that on your path. You run the country.”
In the battle for public opinion – the contest for hearts and minds – the unions are winning in the first weeks of 2023, if anything.
The tactic of tearing down unions in the House of Commons and claiming that Labor is in their pocket every week with questions from the prime minister seems to be in danger of serious backlash, and those like Gorton can sense it.
Our Opinium poll on Sunday shows that nurses and their leaders are far more popular than the government. While 34% of the public approve of nurses’ handling of the conflict, 21% disapprove. Only 14% approve of the government’s position, while 48% disapprove. The numbers for the ambulance dispute are also leaning heavily in favor of the strikers. Labor’s leadership has risen two points since the last poll three weeks ago, after a period of news dominated by the crisis in the NHS and strikes.
There is further evidence that unions are drawing strength from the current crisis. Health unions at the center of the conflict, such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), have seen their membership skyrocket in recent weeks. It appears that RCNs have jumped around 10% since last summer, breaking more than 500,000 all-time records. Unison also reported strong growth.
A union source said: “People understand that what we are doing is right. They identify with the cause.”
Last week, in a fake party political broadcast, Sunak made no mention of the NHS strikes and instead spoke of how the government is pumping record resources to pay for more nurses and doctors. But there are signs that others at the top of the government, including health minister Steve Barclay, are increasingly concerned about the escalating crisis.
The new figures, which show the worst ambulance response times on record in the UK, have caused serious alarm among Tory MPs and within government. The number of people waiting 12 hours or more to be accepted into A&E has reached an all-time high. For people with stroke, severe burns, or chest pain, the average response time was 93 minutes, five times the 18-minute target.
A senior Tory lawmaker said roughing up the salary dispute and insisting that there was no more money than the sums already offered was leading his party to utter disaster. “If it continues until this spring and closes to the May local elections, we will be killed,” he said.
Gorton says that in talks last Monday, Barclay implied for the first time that there should be a change of approach and that more money should be put on the table than was previously offered. “I think he now wants to work with us to do that,” he said. “I think it’s up to the chancellor whether he can do it or not. [Jeremy Hunt] – which is ironic given his previous role [as health secretary] – and the prime minister.
What needs to be done immediately is to resolve the dispute and for that, the Chancellor must allocate funds beyond investments made so far this year,” he added.
Interestingly, Gorton Observer Barclay actually asked the unions to help convince the Treasury that more investment in the NHS would result in greater efficiency. While paying more wages and salaries will help retain staff, allowing the hiring crisis to worsen will only exacerbate problems and increase costs.
Asked if he could see some light ahead, Gorton replied, “I can see it. It’s up to the chancellor and prime minister whether the light is extinguished quickly. The pressure has now increased and it seems that the secretary of state now needs not only to resolve the dispute quickly, but also to invest in salary to deliver on service renewal promises.” understands.”
Related: Most UK voters still support nurses and ambulance crews’ strikes
“Last Monday, she talked about asking us to help us sue the Treasury for much-needed investment. All deals I’ve been involved in in the past have involved demonstrating the benefits of a certain amount of investment.
This weekend, Gorton writes to Altar and Hunt asking them to hold a meeting with the unions. It seems that the unions may be succeeding in getting the crisis to focus on Downing Street from now on.