The government has tried to give NHS staff “as much as we possibly can” after recommending a 1% pay rise, the prime minister has said.
The proposal has sparked talk of industrial action and demonstrations were planned across England on Sunday, with senior Conservatives also speaking out.
An Opinium poll has suggested as much as 72% of the population think the wage recommendation is too low, including 58% of Tory voters.
Boris Johnson defended the decision, however, during a visit to a vaccination centre in Brent in north London.
The prime minister told broadcasters: “I’m massively grateful to all NHS staff and indeed to social care workers who have been heroic throughout the pandemic.
“What we have done is try to give them as much as we can at the present time.
“The independent pay review body will obviously look at what we’ve proposed and come back.
“Don’t forget that there has been a public sector pay freeze, we’re in pretty tough times.”
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) chief Dame Donna Kinnair accused Johnson of “failing to understand the situation” and said his pay defence would lead to nurses leaving the profession.
“When there are already tens of thousands of unfilled nurse jobs in the NHS, he’s pushing more to the door this weekend,” said the union’s general secretary.
Labour labelled the NHS pay recommendation “reprehensible”, and argued that a 2.1% wage increase had been budgeted and legislated for in January 2020 when the NHS’s long-term spending plans were voted on in the House of Commons.
Senior Conservatives, including former health minister Dr Dan Poulter, who has been working on the NHS front line during the pandemic, have also broken ranks to criticise the 1% decision in recent days.
A demonstration in Manchester against the pay proposals attracted about 40 people, according to Greater Manchester Police.
It resulted in the arrest and fining of a 65-year-old woman, while the organiser faces a £10,000 fixed penalty notice for breaking lockdown rules, police said.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the rise recommended by ministers to independent pay bodies amounts to a “real-terms pay cut” as it will be outflanked by inflation.
A newly qualified nurse earning a £24,907 salary would face a real-terms cut to the tune of £174 if the rise goes ahead, according to Labour.
Nandy told Sky News: “We think nurses deserve a pay rise this year and that should never have been something that was up for negotiation – this is a Government that has completely got its priorities wrong.
“If they can give a special adviser (Dominic Cummings) who broke the rules a 50% pay rise but then offer our nurses a real-terms pay cut, that is a Government that just has not understood who it is that is getting us through this crisis.”
The Observer reported that many Tory MPs now believe the 1% offer will be revisited when the NHS pay review bodies recommend salary levels for health service staff in May.