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Is Jeremy on the hunt for more cash for nurses?

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In these uncertain and unpredictable times, could we about to see the something even more unusual, namely the government giving nurses a better pay rise?

The health secretary hinted at just such a thing on Thursday, during a high profile speech to NHS leaders.

Jeremy Hunt, usually so well guarded on workforce policy and for so many years committed to pay restraint, promised “concrete actions” to improve conditions for NHS staff.

He said pay restraint was a matter for Philip Hammond, but he was planning to meet with the Royal College of Nursing’s leadership and pledged to “relay those discussions to the chancellor”.

Mr Hunt, who let us remember did not attend this year’s RCN conference, said NHS staff “have never worked harder; they have never had to deal with so much pressure on the frontline.

“They are the people without whom we can do nothing,” he said. “The evidence is clear that motivated staff give better care and we know we rely on a huge amount of goodwill.”

“For years the government has turned a blind eye”

All of these things are true, but for years the government has turned a blind eye to the seemingly obvious fact that paying nurses and other NHS staff more than a 1% pay rise might actually have a positive impact on recruitment, retention and motivation in general.

So what has changed?

Last month, the issue of pay was one of the key themes of the RCN’s annual congress, with the union promising a “summer of protests” and, potentially a stroke ballot, should the pay freeze not be thawed. There was also much mention of the rumoured use of foodbanks.

But nothing seemed to change much in the weeks that followed, and promises of better pay for health and social care staff certainly didn’t figure in the Conservative election manifesto. And the government has a reputation for fronting these things out – remember the junior doctors?

So what else has changed?

“Promises of better pay for health and social care staff certainly didn’t figure in the Conservative election manifesto”

Well, there has certainly been an increase in senior figures speaking out on NHS pay, which collectively has increased the pressure. This has increased in volume this week at the very same conference that Mr Hunt was speaking at.

On Wednesday, the influential former head of the Commons’ health select committee Stephen Dorrell, himself a former Tory health secretary and now chair of the NHS Confederation, called for a pay rise for the 1.3 million NHS staff.

His sentiments were significantly later echoed by Sir Mike Richards, a man who know a lot about patient safety as chief inspector of hospitals at the Care Quality Commission, in an interview with Health Service Journal.

Meanwhile, over the last few months the pipeline of overseas staff from the EU has dwindled from a flood to a trickle, with Brexit being cited as the cause. Though the key driver for this may actually turn out to be language tests, it has nonetheless woken people up to the fact that a major supply line of NHS workers is waning at a time when nurse shortages are already evident.

But what else has changed?

“Recent weeks have seen the NHS, its nurses and the public sector in general showing extraordinary dedication and bravery”

I would argue two very big things indeed. There is the reduced Commons majority following the general election that has left Theresa May looking significantly more vulnerable than before and much less likely to want to see nurses protesting over pay.

And then, of course, recent weeks have seen the NHS, its nurses and the public sector in general showing extraordinary dedication and bravery in the wake of the series of terrorist attacks and now the Grenfell Tower blaze.

Their standing in the eyes of the public is currently off the scale, rather than dragged down by negative newspaper headlines. Unfortunate, that it takes such awful incidents, to draw attention to fantastic work of the profession.

Nurses protesting on the streets over pay never looks good for a government but right now with a weakened majority and public support rocketing, something perhaps had to give.

The prospect of movement on pay by the government could not have come sooner, as inflation reached 2.9% in May, far outstripping the 1% pay rise that Agenda for Change staff received at the same time.

I’m not declaring victory just yet, but the fact Mr Hunt even mentioned the issue in public suggests he might be looking for at least a little something extra for the profession down the back of the sofa.

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