Jeremy Hunt rejects calls for £1bn for NHS in England to cover strike costs

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UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt has rejected calls for £1bn in extra funding for the NHS in England to relieve pressures on hospitals after strikes by doctors, nurses and other staff led to the cancellation of about 1.2mn operations and appointments.

NHS England is on Wednesday expected to announce that the government will give health service trusts £800mn to help them cope with winter pressures. However, people briefed on the plans said the money was not new and accused ministers of “recycling”.

The funding announcement is set to include £200mn announced in September and £600mn from existing budgets, according to two people close to the discussions. 

The decision will come as a blow to health secretary Steve Barclay, who had been calling on Hunt to lay out extra funding in his Autumn Statement later this month.

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Consultants and junior doctors represented by the British Medical Association have walked out since December last year in a bid to force the government to improve its pay offer to all doctors.

Even before the wave of industrial action, NHS England struggled to mitigate the effect of high inflation on its budget. The system’s budget will reach £166bn annually by the 2024-25 financial year, up by £42bn compared with 2019-20.

The strikes have led to further pressure on the health service’s budget as it has incurred extra costs paying for cover for striking staff. Meanwhile official figures show a record 7.75mn patients are waiting for non-urgent treatment.

Julian Kelly, NHS England chief financial officer, told a board meeting last month that the strike action had cost an estimated £1.1bn up to July, according to documents published online.

Talks over pay are taking place between the government and the BMA after senior consultants offered to pause further strike action. Junior doctors are also engaging in negotiations. Nurses and other staff have already agreed pay deals.

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The Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are backing the NHS and social care with record funding and have invested up to £14.1bn to tackle the backlog caused by the pandemic and cut waiting lists.

“We are also working with NHS England to mitigate the impact of industrial action to ensure that patients continue to receive the highest quality care over the coming months and ease pressure on hospitals.”

NHS England and HM Treasury were contacted for comment.