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A person walks past images of National Health Service workers displayed on hoardings outside a temporary field hospital at St George's Hospital on Jan. 8, 2022.HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

British health unions have offered to suspend a wave of planned strikes in health services over Christmas and the New Year if the government agrees to open serious discussions over pay.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison said they would consider calling off the strikes if Britain’s health and social care minister Steve Barclay agrees to host serious negotiations.

“I will press pause on it when the health secretary says he will negotiate seriously on our dispute this year,” RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said in a statement. “A swift change of tactics will pay off for all concerned.”

Britain’s state-run National Health Service (NHS) had been bracing for a wave of unprecedented industrial action this winter, with up to 100,000 nurses due to take strike action on Dec. 15 and 20. Last month, over 10,000 ambulance workers across England and Wales had also voted in favour of industrial action.

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Inflation has soared in Britain this year, causing a cost of living crisis, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Rather than scare the public about the consequences of strikes, the health secretary should table genuine plans for improving wages,” said Unison general secretary Christina McAnea in a statement.

The NHS, which has provided health care free at the point of use since 1948, is dealing with record levels of patients on waiting lists for hospital treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a staffing crisis that has left thousands of vacancies.

When asked for comment the government pointed to a pay award announced earlier this year, which was recommended by an independent review.

“Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN and Unison,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said in a statement. “We have been clear the door remains open for further talks.”

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