The Royal College of Nursing says it will pause strike action as it enters “intensive talks” with ministers over pay.

RCN members in England were set to walk out for 48 hours from 1-3 March, including by emergency departments for the first time, as part of the long-running dispute with the government over pay and conditions.

But the union now says it will meet with the health secretary on Wednesday to begin “intensive” negotiations and it “will pause strike action during these talks”.

Moments after the government and the RCN announced they would be getting around the table, the Department for Health and Social Care told the NHS pay review body, which recommends how much all health workers should be paid, a maximum 3.5% pay rise for 2023-2024 would be affordable.

The government has also recommended a 3.5% pay rise for the police, teachers and judges.

In its submission to the pay review body, the DHSC said: “Pay awards above this level would require trade-offs for public service delivery or further Government borrowing at a time when headroom against fiscal rules is historically low and sustainable public finances are vital in the fight against inflation.”

The RCN was originally calling for an above-inflation pay rise of 19.2% as nurses said they have had a real terms pay cut of 20% since 2010, but RCN leader Pat Cullen said she is willing to meet the government “halfway” at around 10%.

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A joint statement from the RCN and the Department of Health, announcing talks are taking place, said: “The government and Royal College of Nursing have agreed to enter a process of intensive talks.

“Both sides are committed to finding a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role that nurses and nursing play in the National Health Service and the wider economic pressures facing the United Kingdom and the prime minister’s priority to halve inflation.

“The talks will focus on pay, terms and conditions, and productivity-enhancing reforms.

“The health secretary will meet with the Royal College of Nursing on Wednesday to begin talks. The Royal College of Nursing will pause strike action during these talks.”

Tens of thousands of nurses from the RCN went on strike for the first time in their more than 100-year history just before Christmas, then again in January and February.

RCN head Ms Cullen said she is “confident we will come out with a fair pay settlement for our nursing staff” during the talks that start on Wednesday.

“Every nurse in England can breathe a sigh of relief today, as can patients,” she added.

“We will make sure no stone is left unturned.”

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