Health Secretary Steve Barclay has suggested striking health workers could receive a revised pay offer – if they agree to “efficiencies” in the NHS.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Barclay said he remains “ready to engage” with unions on how the government can “support the workforce”.
The NHS has seen widespread strikes in recent weeks in a pay dispute.
Shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne said a decade of underfunding by Tory governments had stretched the NHS.
It comes a day after health leaders held talks with the government about tackling the challenges faced by the NHS – which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described as “highly valuable”.
Ambulance workers are set to walk out again this week, and nurses later in the month. And from Monday, junior doctors in England will be balloted on strike action.
Unions insist the current pay settlement needs to be reopened and Pat Cullen, the general Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said the action could be called off if the government backed down and negotiated on pay.
In his Telegraph opinion piece, Mr Barclay – who was reappointed as health secretary by Mr Sunak in October after a short spell earlier in the year – admitted the recent strikes had disrupted the health service, causing more than 30,000 appointments to be rescheduled.
“While those who kept working did a formidable job – supported brilliantly by our armed forces – we know the quality of care patients received suffered as a result,” he said.
He also said the government is planning to “introduce new legislation” to ensure minimum levels of staff in emergency services, saying such “pragmatic” moves would be similar to actions taken in countries such as France and Germany.
However, he also hinted at space for negotiation with the unions, saying he was keen to hold talks to see if a settlement could be agreed on any revised pay offer.
He described a recent visit to one of the 42 new NHS system control centres that use live hospital data and digital notifications to ensure the typical time a bed remains empty is being cut from three hours to one hour.
He said that when the NHS trusts can find and widely introduce “productivity and efficiency opportunities” that would make it “affordable” for the government to fund revised pay offers for staff.
Acknowledging challenges within the health service, Mr Barclay also said he would make an announcement on Monday to “improve the flow through our hospitals”.
“This is the kind of work we’re determined to keep doing, fixing people’s problems and taking the country forward, rather than being stuck on repeat with the unions,” he said.