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People hold British Medical Association (BMA) branded placards calling for better pay, as they stand on a picket line outside University College Hospital (UCH) in central London. Tens of thousands of doctors in Britain’s state-funded health service launched a five-day walkout on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: The British government offered millions of public sector workers pay raises on Thursday in a bid to end an array of strikes that have crippled trains, health care and other services for more than a year amid the biggest cost-of-living crisis in generations.

On the day that tens of thousands of doctors in Britain’s state-funded health service launched a five-day walkout, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accepted pay recommendations from independent review bodies. But he insisted that there would be no more discussions with unions.

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Like other nations in Europe, Britain has faced disruptive strikes as workers, from teachers to train drivers and nurses, have pressed for their pay to keep pace with a sharp increase in consumer prices. A major train strike across Italy stranded tourists and commuters on Thursday.

“Today’s offer is final,” Sunak said. “There will be no more talks on pay. We will not negotiate again on this year’s settlements and no amount of strikes will change our decision.”

He said the accepted recommendations are a “fair deal for the British taxpayer” and offered assurances that they wouldn’t stoke further inflation.

Police will see a 7 per cent pay raise, while teachers will get 6.5 per cent and the striking doctors, who are at the early stages of their careers in the publicly funded health care provider, will receive 6 per cent.

Hospital consultants, set to strike in England next week, also will receive a 6 per cent rise. Some of the professions, including the junior doctors, will be getting additional payments.

Teaching unions to take offer

Already, Sunak said leaders of the teaching unions announced that they’re suspending all planned strikes immediately and that they will recommend members to back the pay offer.

“I want to address those yet to do so,” the prime minister said.

“Now that we’ve honoured the independent pay recommendations, I implore you: Do the right thing, and know when to say yes.”

Early signs appear to be positive for the government, with the FDA union, which represents civil servants, saying the offer appears to be “both fair and reasonable.”

The pay offers shine a particular spotlight on the junior doctors on the first day of what is being described as the longest-ever strike in the National Health Service. They are asking for a 35 per cent pay bump.

The British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, has asked for the big leap in pay to bring junior doctors’ pay back to 2008 levels once inflation is taken into account. The workload of England’s 75,000 or so junior doctors also has swelled as patient waiting lists for treatment hit record highs following the coronavirus pandemic.

The doctors’ strike will cause huge disruption for the already embattled NHS. About 650,000 operations were cancelled during previous strikes by health providers, and tens of thousands of others are expected to be called off over the coming weeks.

The striking doctors say they know the impact of their walkout on the health service but insist that they have been left with no alternative.

“This isn’t a celebration, this is years of declining pay, declining conditions, frustration, and this is what has culminated as a result,” Alex Gibbs, a striking 31-year-old doctor said outside University College Hospital in north London.

“We don’t go into medical school thinking this is what we’re going to have to do, but it’s what we’ve got to do to try and restore the NHS,” Gibbs said.

Britain, like other countries, is grappling with high inflation for the first time in years. Price rises were first stoked by supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic and then by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy and food prices soaring.

Though inflation has come down slightly from its double-digit peak — to 8.7 per cent — it is far above the Bank of England 2% target.

Sunak said there will be no new borrowing to fund the pay deals and that departments will have to “reprioritize” spending, raising fears of cuts across public services.

He also said the 6.5% pay award for teachers will be “fully funded,” with additional money for schools over the coming two years, and that increased charges for visas and NHS contributions for non-UK citizens will raise about 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion).