Health secretary Steve Barclay is proposing strict “minimum service level” regulations for urgent and emergency care in hospitals in a bid to stop disruption affecting patients.
It follows controversial anti-strike legislation passed in the summer – bitterly opposed by the unions – which gives ministers the power to impose minimum staffing across the public sector.
Mr Barclay said the introduction of regulations for the NHS “would provide a safety net for trusts and an assurance to the public that vital health services will be there when they need them”.
But NHS Providers, the membership body for hospitals, said the plan “risks worsening industrial relations at a time when we need government and unions to get around the table and enter into talks”.
“This legislation – as well as the consultation announced today – doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action, including dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions,” said the group’s deputy chief Saffron Cordery.
The government will now consult on imposing minimum service levels to “time-critical hospital-based health service” – which could cover nurses and doctors – having already consulted on doing the same in ambulance services.
NHS leaders have warned that strikes by junior doctors and consultants beginning on Tuesday will cause unprecedented disruption for patients, amid a historic joint walkout.
Planned care is likely to come to a halt with thousands of appointments cancelled, as the row with the government over pay and working conditions continues.
Consultants in England will walk out for 48 hours from Tuesday, and will be joined by their junior colleagues on Wednesday. Junior doctors will then continue their strike on Thursday and Friday.
Both consultants and junior doctors will then strike together on 2, 3 and 4 October – coinciding with the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester.
Staff are expected to work on a “Christmas Day cover” basis for both spells of industrial action, meaning emergency care will continue to be provided.
Ahead of the strike action, NHS national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis warned the health service had “never seen this kind of industrial action in its history”. He said people should still call 999 and use A&E as normal in emergency situations.
The government has implemented a 6 per cent pay rise for consultants and 6 per cent plus a lump sum of £1,250 for junior doctors and has said there will be no further offers.
The British Medical Association (BMA), meanwhile, is calling for “full pay restoration” back to 2008/09 levels, saying pay has been eroded over several years.
Earlier this year, it estimated that, using RPI inflation measures, the value of junior doctors’ pay was eroded by 26 per cent up to 2021/22, and would therefore need to rise by 35 per cent above where it was 2021/22 to be restored.
Mr Sunak began his premiership pledging to cut waiting lists, but ministers’ failure to resolve the dispute with junior medics and consultants has cast doubt on whether that promise can be achieved.
Figures released earlier this month showed the NHS waiting list in England reached a new record high with 7.7 million people – around one in seven – waiting for treatment.