Consultant strike will have ‘biggest impact yet’ on NHS

'The NHS cannot fully function without consultants': Thousands of consultants are on strike across England, causing large-scale disruption to patient care. John Ray reports

Thousands of consultants in England are on strike over pay, with the action expected to cause mass disruption across the NHS.

Consultant doctors and hospital-based dentists will strike for 48 hours from 7am on Thursday morning until 7am on Saturday.

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said: “The impact of this strike on patients and services is likely to be the biggest yet."

Meanwhile, the Health Secretary Steve Barclay said his "plea to consultants is to recognise they [the government] have listened" and "it is now time to put patients first".

The continued action comes after Rishi Sunak accepted the pay recommendations of independent pay review bodies, with consultants offered a 6% salary uplift, which has been widely rejected by unions.

Health leaders have warned that planned care will come to a “virtual standstill”, with senior medics providing only emergency Christmas Day-style cover.

Thousands of operations, procedures and appointments have been cancelled and are being rescheduled.

It comes just two days after junior doctors staged a five-day walkout, the longest in the history of the NHS.

More than 24,000 consultants voted in the British Medical Association (BMA) ballot for industrial action last month, with the vast majority (20,741 or 86%) voting in favour.

Steve Barclay called the strikes 'extremely disappointing'. Credit: PA

The government has told consultants they will receive a 6% pay rise, but the BMA has called this “derisory” and said doctors have seen real-term take-home pay fall by more than a third over the last 14 years.

According to the BMA, consultants on a 2003 contract earn a starting salary of £88,364 in basic pay, rising to £119,133 after around 19 years.

The Department of Health said extra payments such as clinical excellence awards and cash for being on call would take the average NHS pay for consultants in 2023/24 to around £134,000.

NHS trusts have been planning how to manage without their most senior doctors, with Christmas Day cover meaning, in many cases, that consultants will be “on call” throughout Thursday and Friday.

A letter sent to hospital chiefs by the BMA and NHS England earlier this month said care will be provided where there is a risk of serious harm (often called life and limb cover) caused by delaying or deferring procedures due to the strike action.

The letter added that consultant strikes are “different to previous rounds of industrial action” because “no other worker can provide cover for consultants, and other staff groups are dependent upon supervision from consultants to be able to work.

“Almost no activity in a hospital can occur unless it is listed under and supervised by a named consultant.”

Sir Julian said that, as the NHS’s most senior doctors, consultants deliver the most complex care and supervise more junior colleagues.

During the 48-hour strike, the public is being urged to dial 999 for life-threatening emergencies and to contact NHS 111 online for other health concerns.

GP services and pharmacies will be running as normal.

Doctors are expected to line picket lines across England, while a rally will also be held at the BMA headquarters in central London on Thursday afternoon, attended by its consultants’ committee chair Dr Vishal Sharma.

In a statement, Dr Sharma said Health Secretary Steve Barclay had met doctors just once in seven months and had refused further talks on pay.

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Analysis also shows consultant pay has fallen way behind the likes of lawyers, architects and financial advisers, the BMA said.

“This dispute is not just about one year’s pay settlement, it is about the reality of 14 years of consultant pay falling behind, about our a loss in our pay in real terms of 35% and the broken pay review system that has allowed this to happen," Dr Sharma said.

“Consultants will stand on the picket lines today because we are angry and at rock bottom. We never wanted to be forced into taking this huge step.

Mr Barclay said he hugely valued the work of NHS consultants and had accepted independent pay review body recommendations in full to give the medics a 6% pay rise this year, on top of last year’s 4.5% increase.

He added: “This government has also reformed pension tax rules for consultants, something the BMA campaigned for over many years.

“I am disappointed the BMA is going ahead with this week’s strike, given the average consultant’s NHS earnings are expected to increase to £134,000 a year.

“My door is always open to discuss non-pay issues, but this pay award is final so I urge the BMA to end their strikes immediately.”