THERE are few safer positions in UK politics than praising the NHS and advocating an increase in the wages of its staff, and few electoral tactics as tried and tested as producing more money from the public purse shortly before the polls open.

Nor is it unusual that the initial response of a public sector union to any pay offer, no matter its level, should be to argue that it is inadequate, and urge its members to hold out for more.

So both the Scottish Government’s suggested four per cent rise for NHS workers – considerably higher than the one per cent the Westminster Government proposes as the most that is affordable – and the GMB’s call for it to be rejected may seem like familiar territory. But in the current circumstances they are surprising, and deeply disappointing.

Everyone recognises the remarkable dedication shown, and the extraordinary challenges faced, by NHS staff over the past year; many will also have sympathy with the claim that a substantial increase is not only an acknowledgement of that, but an attempt to restore their position after several years of pay restraint. But that impulse, no matter how widely shared, is not the sole consideration.

The argument that strict limits on public pay rises were a necessary response to the financial crisis is disputed only by a few; there is no plausible case for maintaining, after a year in which much of the nation’s economy has been entirely shut down, and in which the Government has borrowed more than 10 times as much as usual, that the economic challenges now are not even graver.

The public sector pay bill, even in normal times, accounts for around half of all day-to-day government spending and though of course public sector workers pay taxes, all that money ultimately comes from those parts of the economy that generate revenue, productivity and growth. Yet in raw terms, public sector workers were already paid more than their equivalents in the private sector (except at the very highest levels) before the pandemic, which has sent many thousands of businesses to the wall, and looks certain to have cost millions of jobs.

Those are the people – some in frontline, though private sector, professions that have required sacrifices similar to those of NHS staff, but who are worse paid and less secure in their jobs – who will bear those costs. Part of the blame for that must rest with the Scottish Government, which has distorted the expectations of public sector employees by giving the impression (as it did with teachers, and then rail workers) that there will always be more money available.

Herald View

Herald View

In fact, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out this week, the Scottish Government has 131 per cent per person of the equivalent funding of departments in England and Wales, almost all of it provided by block grant from Westminster, and has been insulated from many of the cuts implemented there. And those figures do not include almost £13 billion of additional Covid funding, some of which Holyrood has earmarked for spending, such as free school meals and bus travel, not directly related to the pandemic.

Suspicions that announcing continued liberal use of taxpayers’ money for, inter alia, laptops for schoolchildren (being produced just before the election, but a year after schools went into remote learning), are designed for political gain may be cynical, but at the least it demonstrates that the Government has not acknowledged, let alone bridged, the chasm between public sector spending and the challenges facing a struggling private sector that must ultimately foot the bill.

Despite its refusal to admit as much, the Government must secretly know it to be true, however. The GMB’s reluctance to recognise that reality when presented with a pay settlement that is, in the current climate, so generous as to be arguably reckless is of a different order of denial. Its response is not merely disappointing; it is irresponsible at a time when building recovery should be everyone’s priority.