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An unprecedented strike by doctors at all levels of the NHS in England this week “will affect almost all planned care”, the health service’s top clinician warned on Monday, as senior hospital managers criticised “a sheer lack of action” to break the deadlock.
Consultants will walk out on Tuesday in a 48-hour stoppage and they will be joined by junior doctors the following day for the first co-ordinated strike action by both groups in the health service’s 75-year history.
Junior doctors will walk out for 72 hours in total, leaving the NHS in England only able to provide “Christmas Day” levels of staffing across the four days. This means hospitals will only be able to provide emergency care to patients.
NHS national medical director professor Sir Stephen Powis said: “The NHS has simply never seen this kind of industrial action in its history.” The combined action meant that almost all planned care would come to a stop, and hundreds of thousands of appointments would be postponed, he added.
He acknowledged that the impact would be “incredibly difficult for patients and their families, and poses an enormous challenge for colleagues across the NHS”.
NHS England estimates that more than 885,000 appointments and operations have been cancelled since the first wave of industrial action hit the NHS last December.
Powis said that in a life-threatening situation patients should still use 999 or A&E “but for everything else, use 111 online or use services in the community which are largely unaffected, like GPs and pharmacies”.
The BMA, the doctors’ union, has called on the government to improve its pay offer to all doctors, including a 35 per cent increase for junior medics. But ministers have insisted the independent pay review body’s recommendation is final. This includes a 6 per cent pay rise, plus an additional payment of £1,250 consolidated into base pay for the junior doctors.
NHS Providers, which represents senior managers at health organisations across England, said there was “a deep and growing frustration among trust leaders at the sheer lack of action to even start to break this deadlock”.
Saffron Cordery, its deputy chief executive, said trust leaders were “once again urging the government and trade unions to sit down and talk”. Patients had been “left paying the price with concerns mounting about the deteriorating quality of life for those who continue to face long delays to their care”, she added.
The government repeated its position in a statement that the pay award was “final,” adding that health secretary Steve Barclay was prepared “to discuss non-pay issues if the BMA call an end to this damaging disruption.”
The BMA said it was “as keen as ever to find a path to resolution” as it called on the government to return to pay talks.
Cordery said that extensive soundings across hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services had highlighted the steps some organisations were being forced to take. These included one trust that had to reschedule care for more seriously ill patients, who might previously have been protected from disruption.
She said the disruption from industrial action, including waiting lists hitting another record high, meant that prime minister Rishi Sunak’s “pledge to reduce the backlog [was] fast evaporating”.
Both groups of doctors are planning to strike again from October 2 to 4, in a move designed to put pressure on Sunak as it coincides with the ruling Conservative party’s annual conference in Manchester.
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard