The Government and health unions are to enter negotiations in a bid to resolve the bitter dispute over pay.
The Department of Health and Social Care is to enter talks with unions representing ambulance workers, physiotherapists, nurses and midwives on Tuesday.
Both parties have vowed not to give a running commentary during the negotiations.
It is understood that discussions will focus on pay for both 2022/23 and 2023/24 as well as a number of other issues.
But any payment for the current financial year will be “non-consolidated”, meaning it will come in the form of a one-off payment and will not be carried over to next year’s pay packet for health workers.
The Government has already indicated that it will only be able to give NHS staff on the Agenda for Change contract – which includes the majority of NHS workers apart from doctors, dentists and very senior managers – a maximum of a 3.5% uplift in next year’s pay award.
But it has been suggested that there may be some wiggle room on this figure during negotiations.
Discussions may focus on other issues including staff banding, work hours, pay at the lower pay rates and the way the pay is set each year, it is understood.
Speaking on Monday, Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton, who is leading the negotiations for the unions, said unions were entering the talks with “extreme caution”, but added: “But we’re also glad that we are in this position, rather than sitting here briefing you about the industrial action that we’d be taking on Wednesday.
“I think the key takeaway from the events of the last few days is this does not mean the dispute is over, but it means we potentially have a negotiated route out of it, which is very definitely a better place to be in than we were this time last week.”
Unison said it will uphold confidentiality about the discussions “until we can assess whether there has been progress”, which will be ahead of planned action on March 20.
“That’s the next kind of official check in and the lay members from Unison and other unions will need to know whether these talks are meaningful, rather than just a tactic to delay and get through the other side of the Budget without having any more industrial action,” Ms Gorton added.
She continued: “We will find out within the first few days whether these are serious talks, or whether they’re just a stalling tactic, because of the willingness to engage from what we see at the other side of the table, I think that will be pretty apparent whether we are being fobbed off.”
The Government had previously just held talks with the nurses, but these have now been “folded in” to the wider staff group, she added.
Unions have agreed to postpone strike action while talks are ongoing, but an ambulance strike set for March 20 is yet to be called off.
And unions can still plan future strike dates.
The unions directly involved in the talks are: Unison; the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy; GMB; Unite; the Royal College of Midwives; and the Royal College of Nursing.
The negotiations are not with junior doctors, who are still set to walk out for 72 hours next week.