Widespread NHS strikes are “a badge of shame for the government”, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

The Labour leader made the comment as tens of thousands of NHS staff – including nurses and ambulance workers – staged the biggest walkout in the organisation’s history in England and Wales.

Unions are demanding pay rises amid the ongoing cost of living crisis, along with improved conditions, but the government will not budge on wages, saying the current year’s offer will not be increased.

Politics live: Massive day of industrial action hits NHS

Sir Keir said the public would be “absolutely flabbergasted that the government is still sitting this one out, not showing any leadership in the middle of a cost of living crisis, making the situation much worse than it otherwise would be”.

He told broadcasters: “Nobody wants to see these strikes, nobody wants to be on strike – the last thing nurses want to do is to be on strike.

“What they do want is a government that can show leadership, get around the negotiating table and settle this dispute.”

Health secretary Steve Barclay said the government had accepted “in full” the recommendation on wage increases from the independent pay review body, adding: “Of course that came on top of the 3% that was awarded the previous year to the NHS when other public sector workers had a pay freeze.

“But it is right to recognise that there have been ongoing pressures on the NHS, inflation has been higher since last year’s pay review process was originally forecast… and that’s why we have got the evidence in terms of this April that we are working with the trade unions on that, which will reflect inflation and the circumstances.

“It should be done through the independent pay review body process which can look both at what the NHS needs but also the wider needs of the economy and the other pressures that many of your viewers are facing.”

Read more:
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Who is taking industrial action in 2023 and when?

Earlier, the head of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, told Sky News her members had been “punished and left behind by Rishi Sunak”.

She said further strikes this week would be called off if the prime minister came to the table and made a pay offer, but instead he has “turned his back on these nurses”.

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Nurse leader to PM: ‘Do the right thing’

Unite boss Sharon Graham also told Sky News she had “not had one single meeting on pay with the government”, telling ministers to “stop the politicking [and] get round the table”.

“Let’s get this deal done,” she added. “Put it out to the members and everybody can go back to work.”

However, health minister and former nurse Maria Caulfield urged unions to call off the industrial action, saying: “There is a risk to patients the longer that strikes go on.”

She told Sky News the “door was open” for negotiations on next year’s pay settlement, adding: “We’ve got patients waiting for routine procedures, we’ve got one of the busiest winters we have ever had, with record levels of funding going into the NHS to try and manage services, so every percent of a pay increase takes money away from that.”

But the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers – which represents trusts around the country – urged ministers to think again.

“I think that we need to recognise that NHS staff have faced soaring costs, cost of living has gone up, inflation has gone up, and the settlement from this year’s pay review body was made at a time when inflation wasn’t at the levels it’s at at the moment,” Saffron Cordery told Sky News.

“So I think it’s really important that we focus on getting a deal for this year, as well as then thinking about what next year’s pay deal looks like.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said the strikes were “deeply regrettable”, but said it was “within the gift” of the unions to bring them to an end.

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