Matt Hancock has been criticised by unions for sending a “Scrooge” letter which suggests a pay rise for nurses will not come until next summer.
The Health Secretary has been accused of “interfering with the pay process” with his letter to the chair of the NHS Pay Review Body on Friday afternoon.
Unions say the note indicates that staff will be waiting until at least May next year for a pay rise.
The letter announcing the start of the NHS pay review process began: “The timing of the Spending Review announcement has unfortunately delayed the commencement of Pay Round 2021 to 2022.”
Mr Hancock went on: “The affordability of pay recommendations will have to be considered within the context of the significant financial and economic pressures that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, both within the NHS and wider public finances.”
Mr Hancock invited the pay board to report back by May next year.
Rachel Harrison, national officer at GMB union, said there was “a principal obligation to award a pay rise to the workers who are still putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe”.
“The Health Secretary’s ‘Scrooge’ letter in the week before Christmas will leave NHS workers worried that they will not receive the fair pay rise next year that they were promised,” she said.
“NHS staff will be rightly angry to see Government interfering with the pay process before any evidence is submitted.
“It is outrageous that this letter has been slipped out late on a Friday when ministers hoped that attention was elsewhere.”
The Royal College of Nursing said “the link between unfair pay, staffing levels and patient safety is stark” at a time when “many experienced nurses are burnt out, exhausted and considering leaving the career they love”.
Chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair added: “Nursing staff should not have to wait for a pay rise.
“This is no way to treat NHS staff still working through a pandemic.”
Unison also voiced concerns about the Health Secretary’s note, saying it is “cruel to make staff wait until next summer to learn what their pay rise will be”.
The union’s head of health Sara Gorton added: “The Chancellor and Prime Minister must do the right thing and fund a decent wage increase now.
“This would give exhausted staff a morale boost and get services fit for the year ahead.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our hard-working and dedicated NHS staff will rightly be exempt from the temporary pause on pay rises for public sector workers.
“Over one million NHS staff are currently benefitting from multi-year pay deals, which we agreed with trade unions. These have delivered a pay rise of over 12% for newly qualified nurses and will increase junior doctors’ pay by 8.2%.
“We continue to listen to our valued staff and trade unions so everyone is rewarded fairly and, when we receive them, we will consider the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body and Doctor and Dentist’s Review Body which will take into account the challenging economic context.”