Rishi Sunak’s openness to talks has offered a “chink of optimism” that a deal can be reached over nurses’ pay, the head of the nursing union has said.
Pat Cullen from the Royal College of Nursing said the prime minister’s comments were a “little shift”.
Ministers are to hold a meeting with health unions on Monday in a bid to end strike action.
Mr Sunak told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg he was open to a pay deal that is “responsible” and “affordable”.
However, Ms Cullen reiterated the RCN’s position that strikes planned for later this month will go ahead unless the government agrees to negotiate a greater rise for the current financial year.
The government has so far only agreed to discuss a settlement for the next financial year, 2023-24.
Nurses are already set to receive a rise for the current year, 2022-23, of 4.75%. This is in line with a recommendation by the independent NHS Pay Review Body in July – but the RCN says the figure is not enough to cushion the rising cost of living.
In an interview on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Mr Sunak was asked if he would be willing to talk about nurses’ pay for this year.
“The government has always been clear that it’s happy to talk about pay that is responsible, that’s affordable for the country. That’s always been clear,” he said.
“We want to have a reasonable, honest, two-way conversation about pay and everything else that is relevant.
“The most important thing is that we are talking.”
Last month saw nurses, stage a walkout for the first time in the RCN’s 106-year history. The union has said nurses should receive a pay increase of 5% above inflation, which at the peak rate of inflation would have equated to a 19% rise.
Responding to the prime minister, Ms Cullen said: “There was a chink of optimism and there was a little shift in what the prime minister was saying.
“However, and this is really important, tomorrow’s meeting… is not about negotiations, it’s not about nurses’ pay, and it’s not addressing the issues that are our dispute.
“The prime minister talked about coming to the table. Now that’s a move for me, because I have said let’s meet halfway. But it must be about addressing pay for 2022-23.”
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Health Secretary Steve Barclay has suggested health workers could get a bigger pay rise in the next financial year if they agree to “efficiency” savings in the NHS.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said: “I recognise that inflation has made life tougher for the workforce – just as it has for many millions of families up and down the country.
“It’s also part of the reason why I am so determined to talk about what we can do next year on pay, and the many other improvements we need to make the NHS a better place to work.
“I look forward to talking with the trade unions to see how we make any settlement done through the independent pay body more affordable, where there are productivity and efficiency opportunities.”