The prime minister said settlements for the next financial year were “exactly the kind of thing we should be sitting down and talking through, and it’s not just about pay.”
“We’ll be setting out more of our plans in this regard in the coming days,” he said.
But Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen accused Mr Sunak of being “detached from the reality” of the crisis hitting the health service.
The prime minister described the NHS as “special” as he set out a mini-manifesto of five pledges on which voters should judge him.
He ruled out cancelling non-urgent operations as a way of freeing up more beds to ease the chaos in A&E departments, and set a target to bring waiting lists down before the next election.
Labour attacked his pledges – which also included halving inflation this year, laws to stop small boats bringing migrants to the UK, and raising education standards – saying the prime minister was “trying to mark his own homework by setting himself a ridiculously easy exam.”
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith also put Mr Sunak on notice, warning he would be judged on sorting out the “chaos of illegal asylum seekers [and] NHS and social care”, and adding that “taxes must come down to grow the economy”.
The government has already said it will not improve this year’s pay deal, but Mr Sunak’s hint of a fast-tracked process for setting next year’s increase raises the prospect of an offer that could end the strike deadlock.
He is thought to be keen to find a way to both recognise the hard work done by nurses while ensuring he meets his new inflation target. The RCN wants a rise of 5 per cent above the RPI inflation rate, which currently stands at 14 per cent, saying its members have received years of below-inflation pay increases.
“As I’ve said on pay, those conversations need to be based on what’s affordable,” Mr Sunak said on Wednesday. “I think a 19 per cent pay rise is not affordable – I don’t think anyone thinks a 19 per cent pay rise is affordable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have dialogue, shouldn’t have conversations.”
Ms Cullen called for Mr Sunak to “show a renewed sense of urgency in opening negotiations on the current NHS pay award” to avoid strike action on 18 and 19 January.
Helga Pile, Unison’s deputy head of health, called on the PM to give ministers the “green light to start talking to unions about improving pay”.
Health secretary Steve Barclay has come under fire from unions in recent months for saying he is open to talks with unions but refusing to talk about this year’s pay settlement.
Mark Serwotka, the Public and Commercial Services general secretary, said: “If Rishi Sunak is serious when he says he values public sector workers, then he would give our members an above-inflation pay rise to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and beyond.”
Union sources also accused the government of often being behind any lag in the pay review process.
In his speech near the Olympic Park in east London, Mr Sunak also dangled the prospect of future tax cuts for workers, as he warned his vision of innovation-driven growth would require hard work but deliver huge rewards.
He also pledged a revolution in the health service, including more private provision and putting patients at its heart, promised new “family hubs” to support parents and outlined plans to make maths education compulsory for all up to age 18.
A Labour spokesperson said: “Rishi Sunak is banging on about wanting to improve education standards but here he is trying to mark his own homework by setting himself a ridiculously easy exam. We need clear leadership, not this false sense of achievement during a crisis.”
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said Mr Sunak’s speech showed he was “asleep at the wheel” over the NHS crisis.