The NHS is facing its “toughest test yet” as four days of strikes by doctors begin, with thousands of patient appointments expected to be cancelled, a health chief has warned.
This week’s strike in England by consultants and junior doctors, which starts on Tuesday, “can’t become the status quo”, said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers.
Consultants are walking out in a dispute over pay on Tuesday and Wednesday this week as well as on October 2, 3 and 4.
This means that Wednesday’s strike this week, plus the three days next month, will see both consultants and junior doctors absent from work on the same days.
“This ‘double whammy’ of the first ever joint strikes by senior and junior doctors is the toughest test yet for trust leaders, ramping up pressure on already stretched services,” Ms Cordery said.
“Even when consultants go back to work on Thursday, junior doctors will be on strike until Friday with more strikes by both groups and radiographers planned for early October.
“We’re in uncharted territory. It’s all hands on deck in trusts across the country.
“Ten months of industrial action have seen almost one million routine appointments and procedures delayed.
“Strikes can’t become the status quo. Only the government sitting down with the unions can end this disruption.”
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The NHS is expected to see a “Christmas Day” level of staffing when both consultants and junior doctors are off, with emergency care taking priority.
The government has approved a 6 per cent pay rise for consultants and 6 per cent plus a lump sum of £1,250 ($1,550) for junior doctors. It has said there will be no further offers.
The British Medical Association, meanwhile, is calling for “full pay restoration” back to 2008-2009 levels, saying pay has been eroded over several years.
Earlier this year, it estimated that, using RPI inflation measures, the value of junior doctors’ pay was eroded by 26 per cent up to 2021-2022, and would therefore need to rise by 35 per cent above where it was 2021-2022 to be restored.
The union has said its consultants’ committee is campaigning for at least an inflationary uplift, as of March 2023.
Earlier this week, NHS Providers said it had heard from one trust that it was having to reschedule care for more seriously ill patients who previously may have been protected from strike disruption.
Another trust is rescheduling appointments for patients already hit by strikes, while another said it would send volunteers to support patients with meals and drinks as well as providing company in A&E departments during the strikes.
NHS Providers said the strikes are estimated to have cost the NHS at least £1 billion so far and trust leaders are worried that senior doctors are increasingly unwilling to cover shifts when junior doctors are striking.
“These co-ordinated strikes will pose a huge challenge for the NHS and for patients, who will see their care significantly disrupted,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Monday.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay was open to discussions about the “non-pay elements” of the BMA’s concerns but there were no plans to “revisit” the pay deal, the spokesman said.
“This week’s first ever joint action means almost all planned care will come to a stop, and hundreds of thousands of appointments will be postponed, which is incredibly difficult for patients and their families, and poses an enormous challenge for colleagues across the NHS,” NHS national medical director Sir Stephen Powis said on Monday.
“We’re very grateful to the public for using the NHS wisely during this period when we will be prioritising emergency care.
“In a life-threatening situation, use 999 and A&E as normal, but for everything else, use 111 online or use services in the community which are largely unaffected, like GPs and pharmacies.
“Patients who have an appointment and who haven’t been contacted should attend as normal.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak began his mandate pledging to cut waiting lists, but figures released last week showed the NHS waiting list in England reached a record high, with 7.7 million people – about one in seven – waiting for treatment.
The October strike dates coincide with the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester.