OPN Rishi Sunak
Sunak hosted a “recovery forum” of health professionals and officials at Downing Street on Saturday to address issues including improving emergency treatment and speeding up social-care discharge. Image Credit: AP

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it’s “not a given” that inflation will slow this year and stressed the need for continued wage restraint in ongoing negotiations with striking sectors including the National Health Service and railways.

Sunak has come under pressure over a pledge to halve inflation this year when economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility already show that the pace of price increases will slow that much without any extra help from government policy.

Easing inflation “is a function of having a responsible economic policy when it comes to things like pay”, Sunak said in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday. “It’s not a given that it just happens. You have to continue to be disciplined and make the right, responsible decisions.”

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Surging energy costs due to Russia’s war in Ukraine propelled inflation above 11 per cent last year, setting off a cost-of-living crisis. Sunak says curbing price gains is his top priority and the reason he’s been resisting calls to accept large pay demands in the public sector as they could further stoke inflation.

Widespread disruption in the UK

That position has come under increasing strain amid widespread disruption in the UK, most acutely in the NHS where a resurgence of Covid-19, the winter flu and industrial action - including the first major nurses’ strike in history - have forced hospitals across the country to declare critical incidents. Nurses have been pushing for a 19 per cent pay rise and recently urged the government to meet them “halfway” on their demands.

Sunak and private health care

Sunak declined to answer a question about whether he has private health care, saying it wasn’t really relevant. The growing wait lists for NHS treatment has led to a surge in people taking out private insurance, fueling fears of a two-tier system of care that could widen inequality in the UK. Almost half a million people signed up for private services in 2022, with the biggest insurers seeing increases of as much as 20 per cent, the Sunday Telegraph reported.

Scenes of disarray in the UK’s health service are becoming an increasing political problem for Sunak, who is under pressure from members of his own Conservative Party and the wider public to fix the mess. His Tory party is more than 20 points behind the main opposition Labour party in the polls, with a general election expected next year.

Sunak hosted a “recovery forum” of health professionals and officials at Downing Street on Saturday to address issues including improving emergency treatment and speeding up social-care discharge. He left the meeting “with a renewed sense of confidence and optimism that we can get to grips with this problem”, Sunak said on Sunday. “The NHS is undeniably under enormous pressure.”

Trade-union leaders from various sectors have been invited to talks on Monday in a bid to avert further strikes by NHS, rail and other workers. They want immediate pay improvement, but the government is more willing to talk about public-sector wage settlements for 2023-24. Sunak’s government has signaled it won’t sweeten the package for 2022, which is what has triggered the strikes.

New pay settlement round

“We want to have a reasonable, honest, two-way conversation about pay,” Sunak said on Sunday. “We’re about to start a new pay settlement round for this year.”

On inflation and his other targets for 2023 - which include growing the economy and cutting debt - Sunak has been criticised for a lack of ambition and for setting goals that will be easy to reach. The OBR, an independent fiscal watchdog, forecasts inflation will fall to 3.8 per cent by the end of this year.

“It’s a deeply conservative thing to have an economy built on low inflation and sound public finances,” Sunak said on Sunday. “Those are my priorities.”