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The NHS pay cap is unfair, unpopular and dangerous to patient safety, bodies representing 1.3 million health service staff have warned Theresa May, urging her to ditch the policy in the Queen’s speech.

For NHS pay cap, the plea from doctors, nurses, dentists and other health professionals comes as the prime minister faces intense pressure to scrap the cap, introduced in 2010, which has limited NHS staff to 1% pay rises or below. It is legislated to continue until 2020.

In an unprecedented joint letter, a range of health trade unions told May the policy was among the reasons why the Conservative party lost its Commons majority in the general election earlier this month. “By your own admission, austerity, and a lack of investment in the public sector was a significant factor in the general election result,” the letter says. “Many have said that the pay freeze in the public sector was in part to blame for your failure to secure a parliamentary majority.”

The letter follows the admission last week by Stephen Crabb, the former work and pensions secretary, that he lost votes because of Tory spending cuts. After years of wage restraint, teachers, nurses and local council staff all deserved a pay rise, he told the BBC.

NHS staff have become increasingly angry about the pay cap as inflation has soared from 0.3% in May 2016 to 2.9% last month, its highest level in four years.

The unions are urging May to “mark a clear change in direction” with regard to the public sector in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, when the monarch will set out the government’s legislative programme for the new parliament.

“The public sector pay cap has forced professionals out of jobs they love,” the letter says. “Those who stay are overstretched and under pressure to do ever more with less.”

NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, recently revealed that staff were quitting to stack shelves in supermarkets.

“The longstanding cap stands in the way of recruiting and retaining the best in healthcare,” say the signatories, which include the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, and the British Dental Association.

Unison, Unite and GMB, which represent nurses, paramedics and other NHS staff, have signed the letter, alongside Managers in Partnership, the union for about 7,000 senior managers across the service.

“[The cap] is having a profound and detrimental effect on standards of care for people at a time when the NHS is short of staff across every discipline. This is alongside an uncertain future for EU nationals working in health and care”.

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