Health chiefs have warned of unprecedented disruption to the NHS after tens of thousands of junior doctors voted for a 72-hour walkout that is expected to hit every hospital in the country.
Almost 37,000 junior doctors belonging to the British Medical Association (BMA) – 98 per cent of those who voted – said yes to next month’s strike action, which represents a dramatic escalation of the pay row between NHS staff and the government.
The industrial action is expected to hit every NHS trust in England, with healthcare leaders warning of a devastating impact on services – including A&E – which will be left without junior doctors for three days straight.
With more than half of all junior doctors in England covered by the vote, it leaves the NHS facing “enormous” challenges, with healthcare leaders “deeply concerned” about how patients will be cared for.
Health secretary Steve Barclay said the ballot result was “deeply disappointing”.
It emerged that:
- The number of surgery cancellations will be “much bigger” than in previous strikes, dealing a huge blow to waiting-list targets
- Key services including A&E, maternity and cancer services will not be covered by junior doctors for three days
- Hospitals may have to fork out £150 per hour to cover shifts on strike days
Health chiefs called for the government to bring the “spiralling disruption” of strikes to an “immediate” end. Treasury sources said the position had not changed and no money would be made available for improved pay deals.
The BMA claims that, after a real-terms pay cut of more than 26 per cent since 2008, junior doctors were offered an “insulting” 2 per cent pay rise in the current year. The union has estimated that the government would need to offer a 35 per cent pay increase to address the cut.
One hospital chief executive warned that services will be forced to negotiate pay with consultants to cover junior doctor shifts, with hourly rates as high as £150.
According to a BMA “rate card”, which advises doctors on recommended pay levels for non-contractual work, consultants are advised to charge £158 an hour on weekdays from 7am to 7pm and up to £262 for weekend night shifts, for work including the provision of cover of junior doctor rotas.
The NHS chief said: “We’ve been told that we must do everything we can to avoid elective cancellations, but we will have to cancel elective work for safety reasons if we end up with this [junior doctors’] strike.”
Announcing the result, BMA Junior Doctors Committee co-chairs Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi claimed that Mr Barclay had failed to take part in meaningful negotiations on wages.
“This vote shows, without a shadow of a doubt, the strength of feeling among most of England’s junior doctors,” they said. “We are frustrated, in despair, and angry, and we have voted in our thousands to say, ‘In the name of our profession, our patients and our NHS, doctors won’t take it any more.’”
More than 47,600 junior doctors in England were eligible to vote in the BMA’s ballot, and almost 37,000 votes were cast, making it the largest ever turnout for a ballot of doctors held by the BMA.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the prime minister “has a choice to make, which is to either seek some resolution with the trade unions or jeopardise his commitment to cut NHS waiting lists”.
“While health leaders will look to secure cover from consultants and SAS [specialty and specialist] doctors on these days, unfortunately we are likely to still see the cancellation of many non-urgent procedures, checks and other appointments, so that the most life-critical care can be prioritised,” added Mr Taylor.
He also said that the most “worrying” development in the junior doctors’ strike is that emergency care will not be exempt.
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, described the planned strike action as “extremely worrying”, particularly in light of a string of planned strikes by other health workers.
“Leaders across the NHS are deeply concerned about the impact this will have on their ability to deliver care, especially as hospitals will now be left without emergency cover by junior doctors for three days straight,” she said.
She added that hospital leaders are worried that the strike will “hamper efforts to tackle care backlogs and meet elective targets”.
The action by junior doctors is the latest industrial dispute to hit the NHS, as workers face a squeeze on living standards driven by soaring inflation.
Junior doctors who are members of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association have already said they will strike for the first time in the union’s history. That action will take place on 15 March.
Tens of thousands of nurses in cancer wards, A&E departments and intensive care units in England will also stop work for 48 hours from 1 March. Meanwhile, thousands of ambulance workers staged a fresh strike on Monday in their long-running dispute over pay and staffing.
Mr Barclay said: “We hugely value the work of junior doctors, and it is deeply disappointing some union members have voted for strike action. As part of a multi-year deal we agreed with the BMA, junior doctors’ pay has increased by a cumulative 8.2 per cent since 2019/20. We also introduced a higher pay band for the most experienced staff and increased rates for night shifts.
“I’ve met with the BMA and other medical unions to discuss what is fair and affordable, as well as wider concerns around conditions and workload. I want to continue discussing how we can make the NHS a better place to work for all.”