Wes Streeting: I won’t give in to doctors’ unions on huge NHS pay demands

Wes Streeting has vowed he will be “a shop steward for patients” as health secretary, with a warning to striking doctors that he will not meet their huge pay demands of 35 percent.

With an election on 4 July, Mr Streeting has attempted to outline what sort of health secretary he would be if Labour, as expected, is victorious but takes power in the face of record waiting lists caused by the Covid pandemic and exacerbated by ongoing pay disputes.

And he comes with a message on why things need to change: “The NHS is not the envy of the world.”

The shadow health secretary was speaking to The Independent ahead of appearing at the Hay Festival this weekend in conversation with Independent editor Geordie Greig about his biography One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up.

Mr Streeting insisted that the book is “not my Obama book” in the way it is meant to promote him as a future leader.

Wes Streeting hopes that soon he will be the new health secretary (Getty)
Wes Streeting hopes that soon he will be the new health secretary (Getty)

He added: “I think if I write another book, I want it to be about how we turned around the NHS.”

Mr Streeting said that he believes the state of the NHS was a major reason Rishi Sunak braved the rain on Wednesday afternoon to announce an election.

He said: “We know why Rishi Sunak has called the election now. It’s because he knows there’s another NHS winter crisis around the corner, while strikes that he’s failed to resolve are still ongoing.”

The last two winters have seen two of the worst crises for the NHS on record, with beds taken up by patients suffering the effects of flu and Covid.

But Mr Streeting is also the face of one of the top six pledges – or first steps – on Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge card promising to bring in an extra 40,000 appointments a week.

Asked how he would describe the sort of health secretary he wants to become, Mr Streeting said: “I will be a shop steward for patients as health secretary.”

He acknowledges that while plans to use spare capacity from private medical providers and introducing weekend working on a voluntary basis will help bring down waiting lists, he will need to end the strikes to resolve the crisis.

Mr Streeting claimed he suspects the Tories are using the strikes as an election tactic.

“I think it suits the prime minister that there are people out on strike because he can blame the staff for the fact he hasn’t kept his waiting list pledge rather than take responsibility. I think that is the hallmark of this prime minister – blame other people, takes no responsibility himself.”

However, Mr Streeting, a former National Union of Students president whose family were Tories on his father’s side and Labour on his mother’s, is not afraid to bring together the two political traditions.

This includes his plan to use private health companies to bring down waiting lists, a policy which has angered many on the left.

But he is unrepentant: “I think what a lot of my critics can’t answer is the consequences of their convictions. If you’re saying to me, we shouldn’t use spare capacity in the private sector to bring down NHS waiting lists, what you’re basically saying is that working-class people who can’t afford to pay for those appointments, they should be waiting longer because of your principles.”

He recently also annoyed some Labour activists by defending the decision to keep the two-child cap on child benefits even though he admits in his book that his mother needed benefits to put food on the table and coins in the electricity meter.

He said that “handouts” are not the solution to tackling poverty.

Mr Streeting disavowed students protesting over Gaza – “you wouldn’t have seen me in one of those tents when I was at the NUS”.

He defended right-wing Dover MP Natalie Elphicke defecting to Labour.

And he appears to be set on another clash over the junior doctors’ strike where he has made clear their pay demands will not be met – or at least, not immediately.

“I need to be upfront with people on this side of the election. So I’m not prepared to sit here and say to junior doctors, ‘Your 35 per cent pay demand, don’t worry, you’ll be alright with Labour’, and then let them down on the other side of the election.

“I think one of the reasons why we’ve seen so many staff striking in such great numbers, is not just because demands haven’t been met, but actually the lack of respect and care they’ve been shown. So I know it’s a hard message for junior doctors to hear when I say we can’t afford 35 per cent at this stage.

“But I think contained in that honesty is the respect that junior doctors deserve, because I want to work with them if we’re in government in a way in which we’re honest with each other and respectful. And so I’ve said the journey to fair pay is exactly that. It’s a journey, not an event, we will have to negotiate on pay and beyond pay.”

He pointed out that there were other problems, including junior doctors choosing where they work or extreme cases like one not being able to change work times when a partner is diagnosed with cancer or another not being able to ask for time off a year in advance to get married.

Mr Streeting is collecting evidence of the experiences many health professionals, including junior doctors and nurses, are treated.

“The NHS has been running on a hell of a lot of goodwill for quite a long time on services. And I think they have exhausted that goodwill. And it’s going to fall to us to galvanise that team of staff across the country and restore their professional pride and also their sense of being respected by the government.

“I think staff working in the NHS are proud of the work they do. But they’re not proud of the conditions that they’re working in.”