Rishi Sunak has refused to back calls to boost the health service budget in an attempt to alleviate staffing pressures that have already led to strikes by nurses and ambulance workers, and could soon prompt junior doctors to strike as well.
Asked on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland whether there was scope for a one-off increase in health spending, the prime minister added: “There is record funding already going into the NHS … in spite of the difficult decisions we have had to make to get a grip of borrowing and tackle inflation.”
His comments on Friday reflect the Treasury’s refusal to provide extra cash for a one-off settlement with health workers, even as the health secretary, Steve Barclay, admitted privately that more money would be needed to end the strikes.
The Guardian revealed on Thursday that Barclay had acknowledged that more than 1 million frontline staff deserved more money, despite previously insisting the government could not afford to go beyond the existing £1,400 award for 2022-23.
Government sources say, however, that the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has ruled out using central government funds for any increased pay offer, and instead has told Barclay to find an estimated £2-3bn from his department’s own budget.
Sunak also said he was willing to look at the UK’s system for granting visas to health and social care workers to make sure it was working efficiently. But he would not say that Brexit had added to the staffing pressures facing the health service.
The prime minister was speaking from Scotland, where he met the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in Inverness on Thursday night. He said they had discussed a range of issues, including the health service, but also Scottish independence.
The UK supreme court ruled last year that Holyrood did not have the power to hold a referendum without the agreement of the UK government, a decision that caused anger in the Scottish National Party and has led to a rise in support for independence.
Sunak also said he was “concerned” about the impact across the wider UK of changes in gender recognition legislation passed last month by the Holyrood parliament.
The gender recognition reform (Scotland) bill will allow trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without the need for a medical diagnosis.
The prime minister declined to say whether Westminster would block the legislation, saying the government is taking advice on the issue “as is completely standard practice”.
He added: “Obviously this is a very sensitive area and I know there were very robust debates and exchanges on it as the bill was passing in Scotland.
“There may be impacts across the UK that we need to be aware of and understand the impact of them, and that’s what we’re doing, and once the bovernment has received final advice it will set out next steps.”
Stephen Flynn, the leader of the SNP in Westminster, accused Sunak of “playing politics” over gender identification. He said it would be “absurd” if the rest of the UK chose not to recognise gender recognition certificates issued in Scotland.
Sunak also said Friday’s announcement of two new freeports for Scotland around Cromarty Firth and Firth of Forth were an example of Westminster and Holyrood working together effectively.
The prime minster said: “I hope have a constructive dialogue with the Scottish government, to make sure that we can continue to deliver for the people of Scotland. Today’s announcement on the two new freeports is a great example of us doing that.”
Source: The Guardian