Health leaders warned on Monday that a four-day strike by juniors doctors in England would be the “most disruptive industrial action in NHS history”, as a senior minister accused the UK’s biggest medical union of maintaining a “militant stance” in its negotiations.
Junior doctors affiliated with the British Medical Association will begin a fresh wave of industrial action on Tuesday morning, as they seek to secure a pay rise of around 35 per cent.
The union has argued that since 2008-2009 medics have experienced a real-terms pay cut of more than 25 per cent.
The strikes are the latest in a long-running dispute between public sector unions and the government across Britain, and follow three days of walkouts by junior doctors in March.
On Monday, more than 1,000 passport service workers began a five-week walkout across the UK. Meanwhile, further strikes are feared in education after teaching unions rejected the government’s offer of a 4.5 per cent pay rise and £1,000 one-off payment.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said that while the service had been “preparing extensively” for the strikes, “managing additional pressure” was becoming more difficult.
“This is set to be the most disruptive industrial action in NHS history, and the strikes tomorrow will bring immense pressures, coming on the back of a challenged, extended bank holiday weekend for staff and services,” Powis said. “Emergency, urgent and critical care will be prioritised.”
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, health secretary Steve Barclay argued that the BMA’s pay demands were “widely out of step with pay settlements in other parts of the public sector”.
Last month the health unions Unison, the Royal College of Nursing and GMB urged their members to back the government’s pay offer of a one-off bonus and consolidated pay rise of 5 per cent for the 2023-24 financial year.
“Unfortunately, the decision by BMA junior doctors’ leaders to maintain an unrealistic position meant we were unable to make progress with talks,” Barclay wrote. “It seems they are intent on maintaining a militant stance rather than working with the government and NHS management to meet the best interests of their members and of patients.”
The basic salary for junior doctors can range from £29,384 for those straight out of medical school to £58,398 for those with more experience or a specialism, according to NHS and BMA estimates. Junior doctors account for around half of all doctors working within the NHS.
The health secretary warned that the walkouts, which coincide with Easter school holidays, Ramadan and Passover, will pose a “considerable risk to patient safety”, echoing comments by senior NHS figures who are braced for severe delays to in-patient treatments.
A three-day strike action by junior doctors in March resulted in more than 175,000 patient appointments and procedures being cancelled or postponed, placing added strain on the health service as it tries to clear a waiting list backlog of about 7mn patients.
The NHS Confederation has estimated that as many as 250,000 operations and appointments could be cancelled or delayed as a result of the four-day strike.
Patients have been urged to continue to use 999 and A&E for life-threatening conditions but to use NHS 111 online, pharmacies and GPs for non-urgent issues.