NHS bosses have raised “extreme concerns” over forthcoming strikes by junior doctors, saying the walkouts come at the “most challenging period of the year” for the health service.
The British Medical Association (BMA) announced strikes in England later this month and in January after talks with the Government to resolve the pay dispute broke down.
The three-day walkout in December – in just two weeks’ time – comes just days ahead of Christmas, while the six-day January strike will be the longest in NHS history.
Health commentators expressed dismay at the news, with many raising concerns for patient safety.
NHS leaders have said they will prioritise urgent and emergency care to “protect patient safety” during the walkouts.
But Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for the NHS in England, warned that the service is likely to face “another very challenging winter”.
He said: “It is extremely concerning that the health service is set to face another escalation in industrial action, with the longest consecutive strike in NHS history now planned during one of the most challenging periods of the year.
“Staff across the country have worked incredibly hard to ensure urgent and life-saving care has continued during what is now a full calendar year of strike action, while also delivering progress on our recovery plans.
“As the NHS continues to prepare for what is likely to be another very challenging winter, we will also now prepare to mitigate the impact of the latest strikes this Christmas, once more prioritising urgent and emergency care to protect patient safety and ensure those in life-saving emergencies can receive the best possible care.”
The BMA said on Tuesday that junior doctors have been offered a 3% rise on top of the average 8.8% increase they were given in the summer.
But the union said the cash would be split unevenly across different doctor grades and would “still amount to pay cuts for many doctors”.
BMA junior doctors’ committee co-chairman Dr Robert Laurenson said the offer on the table from Government is “completely insufficient”.
He told LBC radio: “After five weeks of talks, not enough progress was made and every single member of our committee voted unanimously for further strike action because the 3% offer was completely insufficient to actually begin to address 26% pay erosion that doctors have faced over the last 15 years.
“All we’re looking for is for that 26% to be restored so we go back to a 0% change from 2008, and that just looks like a doctor starting on about £21 an hour.
“We’re looking at something that actually begins to restore pay for doctors and sets up a road path for the full pay restoration – and, let me just make this clear, we are not asking for this all in one go.”
Dr Vivek Trivedi, co-chairman of the committee, told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve called these strikes because we haven’t been able to make enough progress to be able to turn the tide of pay erosion for our doctors.
“The offer that was put forward would have still amounted to a real-terms pay cut for almost 50% of the doctors that I represent this year.
“And that’s simply not enough to turn the tide of the plummeting morale and retention that you get when you have further pay cuts and pay cuts every year.”
He did say the tone was “very different” during recent negotiations, adding: “It seemed very positive, productive, and we were working towards what we hoped would be the end of our talks.
“But we had a deadline – a prearranged deadline agreed by both sides – and, ultimately, we weren’t able to shape a deal that we could take to our membership.
“Ultimately we do want to reach a deal, but we know what our members want, and this deal was not that, as shown by the vote in our committee.”
Dr Trivedi said the talks “don’t have to stop” but the Government has previously said it will not enter talks while strikes have been called.
On Tuesday, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said the Government would “immediately look to come back to the table” if the junior doctors’ strikes were called off.
She warned that the walkouts will put extra pressure on the NHS during the busy winter period and “risk patient safety”.
Last winter was one of the worst on record for the NHS in England.
The service has now dealt with a full calendar year of strikes, with the first taking place on December 15 2022.
Nurses, paramedics, radiographers, physiotherapists and doctors, along with other staff groups, have staged walkouts at various points throughout the year.
While many of the staff groups have resolved their formal disputes over pay, doctors and radiographers are yet to come to a resolution with the Government.
Consultant doctors from the BMA have reached a deal with the Government which will see consultants earn more money from January 2024, although it will not be paid until April 2024.
England’s top hospital doctors are now voting on the deal, which would see them get a pay rise of between 6% and 19.6%.
Talks with specialist, associate specialist and specialty doctors (SAS) in England are continuing.
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe