Why are junior doctors striking and is it safe for patients?

Credit: PA

The NHS will see "extensive disruption" over the coming days as junior doctors form picket lines on the first of three days of strike action.

Junior doctors make up around 45% of the NHS’s medical workforce and consultants and other medics have been drafted in to provide strike cover in areas such as A&E.

As a result, cancer care is likely to be affected - according to NHS England medical director Stephen Powis - but the British Medical Association (BMA) has suggested the health service could be safer than normal as more senior colleagues step in.

The 72-hour walkout, which began on Monday morning, will see operations and appointments cancelled for thousands of patients.

So, will the NHS be safe for patients?

Professor Philip Banfield, the BMA’s chairman of council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that any danger faced by patients would be the “same danger that occurs every day”.

“Because the care is going to be given by consultants, consultants seeing patients, doing things that they normally wouldn’t do," he said.

“They will stop, or should stop, their elective work and actually the NHS is maintaining a great deal of elective work. So we should see that the service is safe.

"In fact, actually we should see it is even safer than normal."

More than 100,000 appointments have already been postponed this winter after nurses took strike action in a dispute with the government over pay, according to NHS figures.

Professor Stephen Powis said cancer care is likely to be affected by the strikes.

Speaking on Times Radio, he said the NHS is doing “everything we can to ensure that urgent cancer procedures go ahead but, unfortunately, even some of those may be affected this week, such is the extent of the disruption that we’re likely to see".

“If that does occur, we will reschedule people as quickly as possible.”

He added that a lot more appointments would need rescheduling as a result of the ongoing strikes.

Why are junior doctors striking?

The strikes follow demands from the BMA for a substantial pay rise for doctors.

Its latest campaign says junior medics could earn more per hour if they worked in Pret A Manger.

It said: “That is the message the government is sending junior doctors by refusing to value them properly and address more than decade of real-terms pay cuts that mean newly-qualified medics earn just £14.09 an hour.

“This is in comparison to baristas at Pret a Manger, who can earn up to £14.10 an hour, after the coffee chain recently announced it has raised wages by 19% this year.”

Striking NHS junior doctors on the picket line. Credit: PA

The BMA says junior doctors’ pay has fallen 26% since 2008/09 in real terms and has asked the government for pay restoration.

Last month, ITV News reported that 90% of junior doctors feel their mental health has worsened.

On Friday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay invited the BMA to talks but the union rejected the idea, saying there were “unacceptable” preconditions.

The preconditions are understood to have included looking at a non-consolidated lump sum payment for last year.

Junior doctors make up around 45% of the NHS’s medical workforce and consultants and other medics have been drafted in to provide strike cover in areas such as A&E.

One striker insisted junior doctors are “not worth 26% less” than they were 15 years ago.

Speaking outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, junior doctor Shivam Sharma said: “Junior doctors have faced a massive 26% real-terms pay cut over the last 15 years. We are not worth 26% less, we don’t do 26% less work, we don’t see 26% less patients. In fact, the work has only gotten harder.

“So any of my friends that I worked with, studied with are now leaving for more money and a better work/life balance as well as being able to deliver the patient care they want to deliver.

“We need to keep the talented doctors we have here if we’re going to solve the crisis that the NHS is in.”

He said something “has to be done” because many junior doctors are struggling to make ends meet.

So, what's next?

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive NHS Providers, urged the government and BMA to start negotiations to find a resolution to the dispute.

He said staff have faced enormous challenges in recent years and “pay has not kept up with inflation and the cost of living and we want to make sure that NHS staff are appropriately rewarded and remunerated given the incredible jobs that they all do”.

Sir Keir Starmer has called on ministers to sit down with the BMA to resolve strikes. Credit: PA

Keir Starmer echoed that statement and called on ministers to get round the negotiating table to resolve the junior doctors’ dispute.

He said: “The way to resolve strikes is to get around the table and to negotiate and compromise and come to a settlement. That’s what the government needs to do.

“Many people will be really anxious today. They know there isn’t full emergency cover, they know that operations are now going to be cancelled, including in serious areas like cancer.

“So the anxiety this will put upon people who rely on the NHS is huge.”

What does the government say?

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said the comparison is “misleading” as it does not take into account the additional earning capacity and pay progression available to junior doctors.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters on his flight to the US on Sunday it is “very disappointing that the junior doctors’ union are not engaging with the government”.

“We are actually having constructive dialogue with other unions who have accepted our offer to come in and talk through it.

“As you have seen with rail… they have put an offer to their members, we are having constructive dialogue with the nurses’ unions and all the other healthcare unions and I would urge the junior doctors to follow suit, and accept the government’s offer to come in and have talks, the other unions have done that and we are making progress.”

It comes as members of several trade unions will strike on Budget day on Wednesday in what will be one of the biggest single days of industrial action for years.

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