Labour says the Government should “not put a ceiling” on NHS pay rises as Boris Johnson comes under sustained pressure to U-turn on a planned cut.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner urged ministers to bring in a “significant real terms” pay increase to help prevent thousands of staff leaving the NHS.
She went further than Keir Starmer who has previously said that the 2.1% budgeted for by the NHS should be a “starting point”.
Ms Rayner criticised plans for a one-off bonus for NHS staff, believed to be under discussion by ministers, saying it would not help make ends meet.
In an interview with the Mirror, she admitted that while health unions did not want to strike over pay, if they were forced to she would back them.
Boris Johnson has been criticised for capping pay at 1% next year – a real terms cut – claiming that an increase would not be affordable.
But Ms Rayner insisted “we can’t afford not to” as without more support thousands of nurses and other staff could leave the profession.
She called on the Government to publish a multi-year pay deal for all NHS staff or risk a staffing crisis.
Labour is planning to force a vote in coming weeks on the issue with an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expected in May.
Labour MP Carolyn Harris will use a backbench bill next month to put the matter to a vote.
Ms Rayner pledged: “Make no bones about it, the pressure is not going to go away.”
The former care worker said she was “incredibly frustrated” by the Government’s failure to address the social care crisis despite repeated promises.
She insisted that proper funding of community care could help prevent the elderly and vulnerable going into hospital in the first place.
“It’s not just a social issue, it’s a hard economic argument to be made here as well,” she said.
But she promised to “do anything” to try to resolve the issue, including sitting down to work cross-party – even though the Tories hadn’t been in touch.
There was a backlash last week against Chancellor Rishi Sunak after his budget failed to mention social care once.
He also failed to provide a cash injection into the current system, with experts warning that an immediate £1bn is needed.
It came as new figures show NHS staff are at breaking point with almost half a million sick days lost due to mental ill health.
The latest official figures show frontline health workers took over 471,000 sick days due to mental ill health last October.
Absence due to mental ill-health accounted for one in four staff sickness absences.
The number of days lost due to mental ill-health increased by 11% in the year since October 2019.
And 44% of NHS staff reported feeling unwell due to work related stress in 2020.
Ms Rayner warned that the pressure on NHS staff would continue even after the pandemic.
“We have an NHS workforce that has literally been in crisis the last 12 months,” she said.
“They’ve really pushed themselves to the limits and it’s not going to stop now.
“Our NHS is going to be working around the clock to deal with the backlog.”
The Labour MP said ministers should agree to a multi-year pay deal for all NHS staff – with no cap on negotiations.
The Royal College of Nursing has called for a 12.5% increase and – unusually – threatened strike action over the issue.
Ms Rayner said the 2.1% budgeted for was a “small amount”, adding: “The honest way of approaching this is not to put a ceiling on it.
“We should go into them with the expectation that there is a significant real terms pay increase for those NHS workers.”
Dismissing plans for a one-off bonus for NHS staff, she said: “I think it’s really gimmicky and like saying ‘we’ll give you a medal’.
“A medal is not going to pay the bills. They don’t want extra, they just want to be paid what they’re worth.”
She added: “NHS staff initially felt privileged and honoured by the NHS claps, but as time went and nothing materialised on they felt demoralised.
“If they’re having to go to a food bank or are struggling to pay the rent then that’s not going to cut it.
Ms Rayner insisted that the RCN, a moderate union, was “desperate” to enter into pay negotiations in good faith and avoid industrial action.
Mr Starmer has previously refused to be drawn over whether Labour would back strike action in hospitals.
But his deputy said: “If they’re forced into it because the Government have failed to even negotiate with them then I think that is a really sad day.
“I would support any of the unions and their members in their right to take industrial action.
“But I think the point here is that the Government has the opportunity to stop that from happening.
“If we end up in those circumstances they’ve really failed.
“If they start valuing the NHS in the way Boris Johnson promised they would, then I’m very confident that we can avoid those circumstances.
“But if we do end up there, then it will have been the Government that led us there.”
Ms Rayner warned that with 100,000 vacancies already, the NHS could not afford to lose more staff.
“The least we can do is give them a payrise and if we don’t and we lose more NHS staff then actually it will cost us more.
“It’s not a question of we can’t afford to give them a decent payrise. We can’t afford not to.”