The Health Secretary has been accused of “bullyboy” negotiating tactics by the head of the Royal College of Nursing as nurses prepare to strike next week.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, whose members are due to take part in unprecedented strike action on December 15 and December 20, accused Steve Barclay of refusing to negotiate properly because she leads a largely female workforce.
The strike will cause major disruption to the NHS in the run-up to Christmas, with ambulance workers also set to strike on December 21.
The industrial action comes as the Government faces a wave of winter strikes and walk-outs, amid anger about pay and the impact of inflation.
Mr Barclay has repeatedly been accused by the RCN of failing to properly engage in talks with nurses, even as he insists that his “door remains open”.
Ms Cullen, who represents hundreds of thousands of nurses, hit out at the Health Secretary in an interview with The Guardian.
“I’m a woman negotiating for a 90% female profession that is trying to operate with a Government that’s particularly macho and tends to operate with a bullyboy tactic,” she said.
“Perhaps that’s the reason why we can’t get moving forward. By refusing to negotiate Steve Barclay is ignoring nurses and ignoring me.
“I think there’s an issue here with us being female. I ask myself, would that [refusal to negotiate] be different if it was a 90% male profession and I was a male? I truly believe it would be. I think we’d be treated differently.”
Nurses and other nursing staff will take action at half of the locations in England where the legal mandate was reached for strikes, every NHS employer except one in Wales and throughout Northern Ireland.
The RCN has said that despite this year’s pay award of £1,400, experienced nurses are worse off by 20% in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.
The union is calling for a pay rise of 5% above RPI inflation.
The Health Secretary has repeatedly insisted that the concerns raised by trade unions are not simply about pay and said that the Government was moving to improve conditions for workers in other areas.
A Department of Health spokesperson said that Mr Barclay has the “utmost” respect for nurses.
But Ms Cullen told The Guardian that the Government is taking “female work” for granted.
She said: “Nurses showed the importance of care during the pandemic, the importance of being with a patient at their real hour of need, the importance of being there to hold their hand and see them leave this world and say: ‘It’s OK, we’ll be here.’
“That’s all perceived by those people, by those men, as female jobs, female work, and that they can treat us like that.”
She also promised that she would not “dig in” if the Government showed some movement.
She said: “It seems this Government won’t negotiate with a nurse. That’s unfortunate.
“Everything is on the table and negotiations will inevitably involve some give and take on each side. I won’t dig in if they won’t dig in.
“But they need to come to the table with me.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Health and Social Care Secretary has the utmost respect for nurses and is hugely grateful for the dedication of all NHS staff.
“Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN, on how we can make the NHS a better place to work – and have been clear the door remains open for further talks.
“These are extremely challenging times, we have accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full and have given over one million NHS workers 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.”