Health Minister David Clark has defended his decision to take his family on an overseas holiday in the days leading up to the nationwide nurses' strike on Thursday.
Around 30,000 nurse around the country returned to work this morning after walking off the job for 24 hours yesterday after voting against a revised offer from district health boards totalling half a billion dollars.
The date of the strike, the first by nurses for decades, had been well-flagged by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters and Finance Minister Grant Robertson both fronted on the issue - but Clark was overseas this week.
Asked about his absence today, Clark said he had not been on holiday but had made a commitment to take his family to a holiday overseas and was out of the country for 33 hours.
"I was in connection with my colleagues the whole way through that period."
Clark said it was largely an operational issue and while he had been back, it was inappropriate to comment during the strike.
"I think that the record will show I have been involved at every point, that my colleagues were entirely briefed on it and that there was no need for any comment but that I was in touch the whole time I was away."
Clark said it was clear neither the DHBs nor the nurses wanted more strike action and both sides wanted to reach an agreement.
"Both sides are highly motivated to find a way through, and I think the ERA [Employment Relations Authority] recommendations hint at a way forward.
"But actually it's time to press pause, to allow people to reflect on those recommendations before they come back to discuss them further."
Clark reiterated comments by Peters and Robertson earlier this week that there would be no more money for the nurses' salary package.
"We're committed to sustainably funding nursing, that's why we did double the money that went into the offer but we've reached the end of that process where we have extra money to put in."
Asked about the perception that while the Government has this week announced $2.3 billion for four new Air Force planes, $15m for public media and $1.5m for Taranaki, it was saying there was not more money for nurses, Clark said the Government had inherited a lot of costs at one time from the previous government.
There were difficult trade-offs to make and New Zealand needed to be prepared for other issues as they arose.
"We can't address all of the concerns and all of the things we'd like to achieve in one Budget or one pay round but we are taking steps."
Peters' message to the striking nurses yesterday was that the offer was as good as it would get.
"We have made a serious offer to the nurses with respect to both funding, to career advancement and also help with respect to 500 extra nurses. That's our offer and that's the maximum we can afford."
National Party health spokesman Michael Woodhouse said the repeated public statements that there was no more money was "kicking the hornet's nest".
"To do that through the media is a pretty inflammatory response when the nurses are saying 'let's continue to talk'."
The revised offer includes a further 3 per cent pay rise for those at the top of their field to provide a more equitable outcome, $38 million in new funding to provide safe staffing levels in hospitals and community-based organisations and a guarantee any pay equity claims would be assessed and implemented by December 31, 2019.
Both sides are due to meet again next week.