The Government is hoping that last-minute talks between district health boards and nurses will avert strike action on Thursday.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said the Government was very disappointed that nurses had voted to reject the latest pay offer and walk off the job for 24 hours on Thursday.
The New Zealand Nurses' Organisation (NZNO) announced today that its members voted to reject the fourth District Health Board Nursing and Midwifery Multi-Employer Collective Agreement offer.
The vote was said by a source to have been very close.
"From this point the Government believes there is still time to avert industrial action. We encourage DHBs and NZNO to continue with urgent facilitation talks over the next two days. As it stands, though, we are on track for a strike action on Thursday which will cause disruption to health services nationwide," Peters told reporters.
"We are still hoping that, even at this 11th hour, reconciliation can happen. But that's where things are and the public need to know it. We need the public to be prepared. We've made all the steps possible we can to ensure there is the least amount of sacrifice, or medical difficulty, with respect to potential patients," Peters said.
There would be no further pay offers coming.
"We haven't got the money," Peters said.
"In the end, we'll only deliver for the nurses and all other public servants if they understand the parameters to which we are confined in a fiscal sense.
"We offered $500 million. That is a massive increase on what they were offered when we became the Government. We've doubled it and found 500 new nursing places and new career steps for them to move more quickly up the scale. That's the best we're able to do. We're not kidding when we say that."
Peters acknowledged that nurses' frustration and anger had built up over many years but he reiterated that the Government couldn't fix all their problems in one pay round.
"We are saying give us some time and over the years we can seriously help your profession and raise its elevation and its pay and its status in this country. But after just six months of Budget preparations we can't do it in that short time."
Peters said it was the best offer the Government could come up with given it had other pressures on its surplus, citing the M. bovis cattle disease outbreak and the PSA kiwifruit disease outbreak as examples.
"This is the best we can do."