Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he is “sympathetic” to calls from nurses and other NHS staff for a pay rise and will raise their case with the Chancellor.
Nurses have been protesting against the continued imposition of a 1% pay cap, which has applied for the last seven years, and have promised a “summer of action” in protest.
In his first major speech since the General Election, Mr Hunt told the NHS Confederation Conference in Liverpool that he would hold talks about the issue with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in the coming weeks.
Last month more than 50,000 RCN members said they supported strike action over pay, but the leadership decided against holding a formal ballot on industrial action.
While Mr Hunt stopped short of committing to press for a pay rise, he said he would communicate nurses’ concerns to Philip Hammond.
“I have a great deal of sympathy for the case that nurses have made. They do a brilliant job , they work hard and I am aware they give the health service an extraordinary amount of time for free,” he said.
“But we have a budget that we have to live within and public sector pay is a matter for the Chancellor and it is for the Chancellor to set pay across the public sector.
“But I have had a constructive letter from Janet Davies (chief executive of the RCN) and I will meet with her and make sure that our conversation is reflected back to the Chancellor.”
Mr Hunt’s comments will intensify the debate over the new Government’s approach to public sector pay and austerity following the Conservative Party’s failure to command a majority in the General Election.
Earlier this week Michael Gove said they may have to “ease” austerity as a result, and it has been reported that Mr Hammond is pressing for a looser approach to public spending.
Concern over health service pay, which the RCN say amounts to a 14% real-terms pay cut over seven years, has been magnified by the remarkable emergency service response to the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire.
Firefighters are also subject to the 1% cap, adding to the potential political fallout of the fire in north Kensington.
Mr Hunt praised staff for their “remarkable response” to the terror attacks and the fire, singling out bereavement nurses and pathologists for their role.
He also moved to reassure around 150,000 NHS and social care workers from the European Union concerned about their status following Brexit.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that nursing registrations from the EU had fallen by 96% following the EU referendum last summer, amid concerns that they may not have the right to remain when Britain leaves the bloc.
Mr Hunt said securing their rights would be a priority for the new Government.
“There are 150,000 people (in health and social care) doing an absolutely brilliant job. We need them. We want them to stay,” he said.
“They are part of our NHS family. It is an early priority for this Government to secure rights which we would like to be broadly the same as the rights that they have now, and I want to reassure them and you that this will be absolutely top of our list as the Brexit negotiations start later this month.”