The health secretary has refused to rule out real-terms pay cuts for doctors, but has said a Conservative government would be as ‘generous as possible’.
At a major health debate ahead of the general election on Tuesday, featuring Mr Hunt, health and care minister Norman Lamb and shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, Mr Burnham was the only member to guarantee real-terms pay increases for doctors.
He said that the Coalition Government had got the pay issue ‘drastically wrong’.
The panelists were responding to a question from BMA chair Dr Mark Porter, who asked ‘whether you can commit to there being no more real- terms pay cuts?’
Mr Hunt said that ‘probably the most difficult single decision’ he had made as health secretary had been on pay, adding: ‘I can’t make that commitment now because I don’t know the full situation.’
However, he added: ‘I want to be as generous as possible providing that no decision I take as health secretary means that we would end up having fewer doctors and nurses.’
He pointed out that the Conservatives were committed to a ‘bigger real-terms increase’ in NHS funding than any other party.
He added: ‘I think the chances of getting a better pay deal are much higher given that we have committed to £10bn effectively towards the [NHS England Five-Year] Forward View. But it is a commitment to more staff as well as paying fairly and I think the two go hand in hand.’
But Mr Burnham said this was an area where the health secretary ‘has got things drastically wrong in my view’.
Asked to clarify if he could guarantee no more real-terms pay cuts, he said: ‘Yes I can, and also you reinstate the independent pay review bodies stood down by Jeremy Hunt, because how do you get fairness in pay if ministers are imposing what they want rather than the independent process that judges what is affordable to the NHS but what is also fair to staff.
‘We have a pretty good track record on this and I think people can look at us and see fairness on pay in the NHS from bottom to top.’
Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb said there had to be ‘honesty’ about the relationship between how much the NHS could afford to increase pay while also increasing staff numbers, but said it would be impossible to continue to achieve NHS efficiency savings by holding down staff pay in the next Parliament.
UKIP, whose MEP Dr Julia Reid was also invited to the debate, said the party would ‘have to address’ the issue of fair pay but that she personally did not know how.
The debate comes after accountants warned that the latest GP contractual funding increase of 1.16% will translate into cuts of as much as 10% to individual GPs’ take-home pay.