Junior doctors in England will go on strike for 72 hours in March in protest about pay if their forthcoming ballot produces a majority for industrial action.
Their union, the British Medical Association (BMA), issued the warning as it claimed that junior doctors had suffered a “staggering and unjustifiable” 26.1% cut in their income since 2008.
The union will start balloting more than 45,000 junior doctors from Monday in a move that could lead to an escalation of the mounting wave of walkouts by NHS staff over their salaries.
Nurses are set to stage their third stoppage on 18 and 19 January while ambulance staff are due to refuse to work for a second and third time on 11 and 23 January.
The BMA made clear that if junior doctors do vote to strike, which looks likely, they will withdraw their labour from all NHS services, including emergency care, for three days. The ballot will run for six weeks until 20 February.
Any stoppage could lead to major disruption in hospitals and other services, including surgery and outpatient appointments. NHS trusts would have to scale back the services they can offer as senior doctors are redeployed from their normal duties to cover for their junior colleagues.
Junior doctors are trainee medics who have not yet acquired consultant status. However, despite their title, they include doctors ranging from those who have just qualified to those in their mid- to late-30s who already have a lot of experience, such as registrars.
Hospital bosses voiced deep unease about the potential impact of a three-day stoppage.
Miriam Deakin, the director of policy at hospitals body NHS Providers, said the BMA’s announcement was “deeply worrying”. If the ballot does result in strike action then “trust leaders will do everything they can to minimise disruption and prioritise the safe delivery of care and services for patients”.
She added: “Trust leaders are very concerned about the possibility of prolonged or coordinated strike action by health unions in the coming months. They also understand the factors that have driven junior doctors and other healthcare workers to ballot on industrial action.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said a 72-hour walkout by junior doctors “will be of great concern for health leaders”.
Both he and Deakin urged ministers to open talks with the health unions about pay, which the health secretary, Steve Barclay, has consistently refused to do. Unions have rejected Barclay’s award of a £1,400 pay rise for this year and want an increase that more closely matches inflation, to avoid staff suffering a real-terms fall.
“In the face of increasing winter pressure, a huge hole in vacancies and upcoming strikes in January set to impact services, the government cannot just sit back and let even more strikes happen when patient care is on the line and the unions must be open to reaching a compromise.”
Junior doctors were not included in the staff covered by this year’s pay round as they are in the final year of a four-year deal agreed in 2019 which gave them a 2% rise for 2022-23.
However, the BMA pointed to the fact that the review body on doctors’ and dentists’ remuneration, which advises ministers on pay for those professions, has said that the 2% is “likely not sufficient” to help the NHS improve the retention of junior doctors and their productivity and also that a “betterment” clause in the 2% plan allows ministers to improve that figure if circumstances change.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our multi-year pay deal with the British Medical Association is increasing junior doctor’s pay by a cumulative 8.2% by 2023. We have also invested an additional £90m to provide the most experienced junior doctors with higher pay, increased allowances for those working the most frequently at weekends, and increased rates of pay for night shifts.