English schools reopening with PM Johnson on defence over NHS pay

The British government is considering lengthening the school day and shortening summer holidays to help children recover classroom time lost in the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - School pupils and some university students are returning to English classrooms on Monday (March 8), advancing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's reopening drive even as he faces a clash over health workers' pay.

A government-suggested raise of 1 per cent sparked fury among health unions after a year in which National Health Service hospitals were deluged with critically ill Covid-19 patients. The Royal College of Nurses has started fund-raising for possible strike action after calling for a pay increase of 12.5 per cent.

Jon Ashworth, the opposition Labour Party's health spokesman, stepped up criticism of the government's budget on Sunday, calling the pay offer to health workers "reprehensible" and "disgusting." Johnson, who spent several days in an intensive-care ward last year after falling ill with Covid-19, sought to defuse the row by expressing gratitude to health workers.

"What we have done is try to give them as much as we can at the present time," Johnson told broadcasters on a visit to a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Brent, north London. "The independent pay review body will obviously look at what we've proposed and come back. Don't forget that there has been a public sector pay freeze, we're in pretty tough times."

The 1 per cent recommendation was presented Thursday by the Department of Health and Social Care to an independent panel that reviews salaries, which could overrule the government plan and recommend a bigger pay increase.

NHS Providers, an organisation representing employers in the health service, said Johnson's government was reneging on a planned 2.1 per cent boost in its long-term spending plan.

Johnson "budgeted for that and Tory MPs legislated for that budget," Labour's Ashworth said separately in an emailed statement. "He's now broken his promise."

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson repeatedly found himself defending the NHS pay plan on Britain's Sunday morning politics shows while publicising what he called the "real excitement" about English schools' returning on Monday for the first time since last year.

At the same time, the government is considering eventually lengthening the school day and shortening summer holidays to help children recover classroom time lost in the pandemic, Williamson said.

While Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak exempted health-care workers from a public sector pay freeze announced in November, his budget proposal would raise NHS salaries by little more than the current 0.7 per cent inflation rate, and by less than government forecasts for price rises this year.

Labour pledged on Sunday to vote against Sunak's planned freeze on income-tax thresholds. Yet the party's stand on health-worker pay may not be cutting through to voters.

Johnson's Conservatives have enjoyed a poll bounce since Wednesday's budget despite announcing the biggest tax increase in decades. The Tories widened their lead over Labour to 13 percentage points in a March 3-4 YouGov poll.

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