Doctors urge Health Secretary to meet over strikes

Doctors urge Health Secretary to meet over strikes

Junior doctors have implored Health Secretary Steve Barclay to meet with them ahead of announcing the date of their 72-hour strike in March.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said it was meeting with Department of Health and Social Care officials on Wednesday but understood that Mr Barclay would not be in attendance at the “critical” meeting.

Instead, union representatives are preparing for talks with civil servants.

On Monday, the (BMA) announced that its junior doctor members had voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking industrial action.

The action, which will include all doctors under consultant level, will last for 72 hours and the BMA said that it could possibly coincide with action taken by other health unions.

One hospital leader, Nick Hulme, warned that the majority of pre-planned care would be cancelled on strike days, which are yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, health minister Maria Caulfield said junior doctors’ pay demands are “unrealistic” and claimed that their strike action will “put patients at risk”.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Dr Rob Laurenson, the co-chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors’ committee, said: “For a meeting of this significance to go ahead without the minister in charge, shows how little attention this Government continues to afford to doctors and their patients.

“Tomorrow’s meeting is a really important opportunity for the minister and the Government to bring a workable solution to the table – a solution that could very well avert our planned strike action and be the beginning of the end of the ever deepening crisis in the NHS.

“What else could be more important than trying to stop tens of thousands of junior doctors going on strike at a time when patient care is at an all-time low and waiting lists at an all-time high?

Cabinet reshuffle
The BMA has urged Health Secretary Steve Barclay to get back round the table (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“It is very much within the Government’s gift to stop strike action, but we implore Steve Barclay not to miss this critical meeting.”

The union pointed to a letter, sent by Mr Barclay at the weekend, which said: “I hope that we can work together to find a constructive way forward, which does not lead to industrial action amongst junior doctors”, and that: “I look forward to working with you closely on this matter and have asked my office to reach out to arrange a separate meeting with you.”

Earlier on Tuesday Ms Caulfield told BBC Breakfast: “My understanding from the BMA is their current demands in terms of why they’re striking is a demand of a 26% pay increase, but that’s unrealistic and not achievable.

“Striking with those demands on the table is unfair on patients. Let’s get around the table, let’s talk about future pay settlements and get this resolved, but striking and particularly not being able to guarantee cover for A&E, and emergency and ITU cover is very, very difficult and will put patients at risk.”

The BMA’s deputy chair of council, Dr Emma Runswick, told BBC Breakfast it was “possible” that action might be co-ordinated with strikes by other health unions.

She added: “Junior doctors in this country have faced a cumulative 26% pay cut since 2008 in real terms.

“We’ve got junior doctors earning as little as £14 an hour and we would like to reverse those pay cuts to prevent staff leaving the NHS and to make sure that we can provide the care that patients deserve.”

Meanwhile Mr Hulme, chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, told LBC radio: “We won’t know exactly which doctors will come in on the day, they’re not mandated to inform us whether or not they’re going to strike, so it’ll be an hour-by-hour assessment of risk, placing those doctors who come in into our highest risk areas, which will probably be those sort of 24/7 services of maternity, ICU, A&E, critical care and others.

“But that will mean that we won’t be able to provide most of our outpatients and our planned or elective operations.

“So the challenges that we face in terms of the care backlog and the extraordinary long waits that people are now having for diagnosis and treatment of cancer and for other elective care, this will have a significant impact on already worryingly high waiting times.”

Meanwhile Paul Aylin, Professor of epidemiology and public health at Imperial College London, who has studied the impact of previous doctor strikes, said the action could have a “significant” impact on the NHS.

Prof Aylin and his team previously analysed the impact of the 2016 junior doctor walkouts in England over changes to the contract for medics in training.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, examined the impact of the four 2016 strikes which lasted 24–48 hours.

UK strikes in February & March
(PA Graphics)

The last strike included the withdrawal of emergency care.

Researchers found that industrial action resulted in 31,651 fewer hospital admissions, 173,462 fewer outpatient appointments and 23,895 fewer A&E attendances compared with expected volumes from a similar week.

The effects were greatest when doctors withdrew from providing emergency care.

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, also found that the number of hospital deaths did not appear to change significantly during strike action.

On the latest strikes, Prof Aylin told the PA news agency: “It will have a significant impact, I can’t say by how much because things are different now from seven years ago so it would be difficult to make any estimates of the impact, but I think it would be fair to say it will be likely to have a significant impact in terms of cancellations and outpatient appointments and admissions.”

The BMA’s action is the latest industrial dispute to hit the NHS as workers face a squeeze on living standards driven by soaring inflation.

A smaller number of junior doctors in the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) have already said they will strike for the first time in the union’s history next month in a dispute over pay.

More strikes are set to be announced by ambulance workers and nurses are due to stage their biggest walkout to date as they strike continuously for 48 hours from 6am on March 1.

For the first time, the Royal College of Nursing action will involve nursing staff working in emergency departments, intensive care units, cancer care and other services that were previously exempted.

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.