Young doctors across England have launched a four-day strike in a worsening pay dispute that threatens a huge disruption to the NHS.
An estimated 350,000 appointments, including operations, will be canceled as a result of the British Medical Association (BMA) members’ strike.
Doctors staged pickets outside hospitals from 7am on Tuesday until Saturday morning in the longest outage of the wave of unrest, which has seen nurses, ambulance crews and other health workers attend since last year.
Executives said patient care was “on edge” because of the strike, while NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor said the number of canceled appointments, previously suggested to be 250,000, was likely to increases by another 100,000.
The strikes center on a pay dispute between the BMA and the government, with the union saying junior doctors in England have seen a 26% pay cut in real terms since 2008/09 because pay rises have been lower than expected. ‘inflation.
The union has called for the reinstatement of full pay which, according to the government, would amount to a 35% wage increase, which ministers have declared unsustainable.
BMA officials said the pay issue was making it more difficult to recruit and retain young doctors, with members having previously retired for three days in March.
NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said on Sunday the strikes would put “huge pressure” on staff and services.
NHS England said staff will be asked to prioritize emergency and urgent care over certain routine appointments and procedures to ensure safe care for those in life-threatening situations.
The health body said appointments and operations will only be canceled “where unavoidable” and patients will be offered alternative dates as soon as possible.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “It is extremely disappointing that the BMA has called a strike for four consecutive days.
“Not only will the strikes put patient safety at risk, they have also been timed to maximize disruption after the Easter holidays.
“I had hoped to enter into formal salary talks with the BMA last month, but your request for a 35% pay rise is unreasonable – it would result in some junior doctors receiving a pay rise of over £20,000.
“If the BMA is willing to move significantly from this position and call off the strikes, we can resume confidential talks and find a way forward, as we have done with other unions.
“People should attend appointments unless instructed otherwise by the NHS, continue to call 999 in a life-threatening emergency and use NHS 111 online services for non-urgent healthcare needs.”
The BMA has previously said it was willing to enter talks with Barclay and call off strikes if members were presented with a “credible” pay offer “to resolve 15 years of wage erosion”.
Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, an organization which represents health bodies in the UK, said the likely impact of the strike was “heartbreaking” and called on both sides to end their “battle of rhetoric”.
He said there is “no doubt” this strike will be more disruptive than the 72-hour strikes by NHS staff last month, which resulted in 175,000 canceled appointments.
Speaking of pay talks that would avoid action, Mr Taylor told the BBC Breakfast on Monday: ‘It is depressing that there has been no movement on either side of this dispute in recent days.
“We should consider asking the government and the unions to call Acas, the conciliation service, to give a basis for the negotiation, because if anything, the positions seem to have hardened in the last two days”.
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: “This week’s junior doctors’ strike will cause huge disruptions in patient care.
“Where is the prime minister and why didn’t he try to stop him?
“Rishi Sunak says he ‘wouldn’t want to be in the middle’ of NHS pay disputes.
“Patients are clamoring for leadership, but instead they are weakening.”
The co-chair of the BMA’s junior medical committee, Dr. Vivek Trivedi, said: “We were knocking on the door of the health secretary, asking to meet him to negotiate a solution to this dispute, long before the ongoing strike started.
“We have been in a formal dispute since October. He refused to answer and to meet with us until we got the result of the strike vote. He’s had months to put a credible offer on the table and avoid industrial action, so for him to say, “That’s disappointing” is disingenuous at best.
“We have always maintained our aim of restoring full pay, to reverse the over 26% real pay cuts that the Barclay government has imposed on us over the last 15 years, increasing starting wages by just £5 an hour at £19.
“We have always said we were willing to negotiate on how to get pay restored, so for Mr Barclay to suggest we had prerequisites is once again false.
“The reality is that the Health Secretary had every chance to end the dispute. His decision to refuse to submit a credible offer – in fact he has not submitted a single offer so far – means that this action is due solely to the repeated inaction of this Government.
“We would still be willing to call off the strike this week if the Secretary of State makes a credible offer that could form the basis of negotiations.”