The leader of the UK’s largest trade union has accused the Government of “deliberately running down the NHS”.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said she fears the path is being laid for an “organisation” to be appointed to take over the running of the health service.
Her comments come as the union is balloting its 300,000 members working in the NHS on strike action, which it recommends.
The Royal College of Nursing has already voted in favour of industrial action.
Ms McAnea told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday that the Government needs to guarantee investment in the NHS in the Autumn Statement.
She said: “Difficult things will happen if they do not make the right choices and one of those is the NHS is almost ready to collapse.
“Excuse me for sounding like a conspiracy theorist but I have heard so many people say it now, is this partly a deliberate attempt by the Government to run down the NHS in order to bring in some kind of organisation to run it?
“I hope that’s not what they are doing, what they aren’t doing is making the right choices of investing in our public services.”
Ms McAnea called on the Government to engage with Unison on pay talks and to reconvene the NHS pay review body which previously granted a £1,400 flat rate pay rise to NHS staff.
She said: “That can’t be right that we are expecting these workers to do their jobs and take an effective pay cut, it’s no wonder so many are leaving the sector, they are going to take jobs elsewhere.”
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told the programme that he recognises the “picture” of the NHS on the brink of collapse but the service needs to do its “part” in solving the country’s economic problems.
He said: “There are massive pressures in the NHS, obviously it’s something I know very well from previous jobs I’ve done and I think that doctors and nurses on the front line are frankly under unbearable pressure, so I do recognise the picture you say.
“It’s also true that there is a lot of money going to the NHS and they will be the first to say where in a context where funding for the NHS is going up, we need to do everything we can to find efficiencies, but if you’re saying to me that the NHS is in a very, very tricky situation, I agree and I care passionately about the NHS.
“I have spent more time thinking about the NHS than any other public service in my time in Parliament and we need the NHS to help us get out of the economic difficulties we’re in, because we’ve got a big increase in the number of people who aren’t working, aren’t taking part in work even though they perhaps could, and sometimes that’s as a result of long-term sickness, so the NHS is part of the solution as well as facing some very big problems.“
When asked about nurses’ pay demands, Mr Hunt said: “I think we have to recognise a difficult truth, that if we gave everyone inflation-proof pay rises, inflation would stay, we wouldn’t bring down inflation, and that’s why I’m not pretending there aren’t some difficult decisions, but what I want to say to nurses, to everyone, is that the way through this is to bring down inflation as quickly as possible because that is the root cause of your concern, your anger, your frustration, that your pay isn’t going as far as it might have.”
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the pay review bodies should work with the unions to determine “fair but affordable pay rises” for nurses.
The Labour politician told Sky News: “It is a badge of shame that for the first time in their history nurses are looking to go on strike.
“This didn’t happen when Labour was in government because we valued and respected public service workers, including those who work in our NHS who’ve given so much to our country these last few years.
“We’ve got huge recruitment challenges in the NHS including amongst nurses, workload issues, issues of stress, we’ve got nurses that are going to food banks.
“We need to support our NHS workers, including our nurses, and that means fair but affordable pay rises.”
Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and his Welsh counterpart Eluned Morgan have both written to the UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay asking for more funding to help avert strike action this winter.
It comes after ambulance workers in Scotland voted to take industrial action for one day on November 28.
The union Unite has also announced that almost 10,000 of its NHS members are to be balloted in the coming days over strikes, on top of thousands of other healthcare staff who have already been voting.
The union, which represents 100,000 workers across the NHS, said voting papers are going out across 36 NHS trusts and organisations in England and Wales
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are investing record amounts in health and social care and the Chancellor has been clear that protecting public services like the NHS is a priority, with the NHS budget increasing to over £162 billion in 2024/25, up from £123.7 billion in 2019/20.
“We are hugely grateful for the hard work of NHS staff and that’s why we accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full and have given over one million NHS workers in England a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year.
“This is on top of a 3% pay increase last year, when public sector pay was frozen, and wider government support with the cost of living.”
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