Junior doctors join consultants in a historic joint strike leaving hospitals to run a Christmas Day style shift, as Chloe Keedy reports
Thousands of medics who are members of the British Medical Association (BMA) are walking out at NHS hospitals across England, with thousands of patient operations and appointments needing to be rescheduled.
Health leaders have said this strike poses the “biggest challenge” yet to NHS trusts up and down the country.
Hospitals have put in place Christmas Day-style rotas, meaning emergencies are prioritised but most routine work needs to be stopped.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said: “Consultants and junior doctors walking out together is the awful scenario health leaders have long feared, and now face a tough few days in their efforts to maintain patient safety, ahead of a longer, more difficult clear-up of the fallout.
“Leaders will have pulled every lever available to them to mitigate the impact of this strike, but it is inevitable that patient safety is compromised, and we believe that the level of risk is the highest we’ve seen for a long time.
“We suspect that, despite our members preparing thoroughly in advance, we may see more than 100,000 operations and appointments cancelled this time around, taking the total to well over a million.
“It’s estimated that the industrial action we’ve seen so far has cost over £1 billion; the cost of these latest strikes and those planned for October will likely cancel out or more the additional money promised to the system by the Government last week.”
As well as being out on Wednesday, junior doctors will continue to strike on Thursday and Friday.
Further joint strikes by consultants and junior doctors are planned for October 2, 3 and 4.
Mr Taylor said with winter approaching, growing waiting list backlogs and squeezed budgets, “this is a dire situation” that “won’t be meaningfully solved” by the government’s plan to bring in legal minimum service levels during strikes for doctors and nurses.
“We need to see all sides of this dispute get back round the table, and find a solution, not least for the sake of patients,” he said.
NHS England said that the collective impact of the strikes “cannot be overestimated”.
“The NHS is set to experience the equivalent of five ‘Christmas Days’ in the next three weeks, where many routine services and appointments may not be delivered,” said NHS England’s national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis.
“While colleagues are working hard to ensure we keep patients safe and prioritise emergency and critical care, the collective impact of this on patients and staff cannot be overestimated.
“The level of ongoing disruption to services caused by many thousands of rescheduled appointments is an enormous challenge, and we’re very grateful to the public for using the NHS wisely during this unprecedented period.”
On Tuesday, Dr Vishal Sharma, the chairman of the BMA’s consultants’ committee, said staff felt forced into taking strike action, adding that while pay had been eroded, workloads had increased.
He said consultants wanted an above-inflation pay award for this year, which in April was running about 11%.
“That’s a very similar amount to what was offered to doctors in Scotland and it shows it’s absolutely possible to actually do that, if there’s the right political will,” he told the BBC.
Asked about whether strikes would now be a regular feature in the NHS, he said: “That’s a situation that nobody wants and we’ve been really flexible with government about trying to work through different ways that this could be structured, in different ways that it could actually be sort of met within our total pay bill.
“But if the government are not willing to sort of even entertain this, then our members have been really clear that we need to keep taking a stand and keep taking action.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said any changes to minimum service levels rules would help protect patients while respecting people’s right to hold industrial action.
He said doctors who started their hospital training this year are receiving a 10.3% pay increase, with the average junior doctor getting 8.8%.
Consultants are receiving a 6% pay rise alongside “generous reforms to their pensions, which was the BMA’s (British Medical Association’s) number one ask”, he added.
“In the face of ongoing and escalating strike action, we will continue to take steps to protect patient safety and ensure the health service has the staff it needs to operate safely and effectively.”
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