The NHS will struggle to care properly for patients when junior doctors in England stage the longest strike in the service’s history this winter, hospital bosses have said after the collapse of pay talks.
The warning came after the British Medical Association (BMA) announced tens of thousands of junior doctors would walk out for three days later this month and another six days in January, at a time when the NHS comes under its most intense strain.
They will strike for 72 hours from 7am on 20 December until 7am on 23 December, and again for six days from 3 to 9 January.
“This is the outcome that trust leaders were dreading. This will be the longest strike in NHS history, during the busiest and toughest time of the year for the NHS,” said Sir Julian Hartley, the chef executive of hospitals body NHS Providers. “These strikes will undermine efforts to cut waiting lists further, they’ll have a serious knock-on effect on services right across the NHS and they’ll impact the quality of care for patients.”
The BMA’s junior doctors committee (JDC) broke off talks with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) when it offered only three percentage points more than the average 8.8% pay rise for this year it had already given junior doctors, who are mostly medics below consultant level.
The fresh nine days of strikes come on top of the 25 days of stoppages junior doctors have already mounted since they began striking in March in pursuit of their 35% pay claim.
Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trevedi, the JDC’s co-chairs, said: “After five weeks of intense talks the government was unable to present a credible offer on pay by the deadline. Instead we were offered an additional 3%, unevenly spread across doctors’ grades, which would still amount to pay cuts for many doctors this year.
“It is clear the government is still not prepared to address the real-terms pay cut doctors have experienced since 2008.”
Victoria Atkins, the new health and social care secretary, said the JDC’s decision was disappointing, given that the talks had resulted in “significant progress” on junior doctors’ pay and conditions.
Laurenson and Trevedi added that “even though the [government’s] approach was more constructive, there was not enough on offer to shape a credible deal, which we hoped would end the dispute”.
The JDC’s move comes a week after consultants – senior hospital doctors – agreed the outline of a deal to end their dispute, which will be put to a ballot of BMA consultants.
Strikes in the NHS, which have also included other staff groups including nurses, physiotherapists and paramedics, have led to more than a million appointments, procedures and surgeries being rescheduled – with some patients facing disruption on several occasions. The industrial action has cost the NHS more than £1bn.
But on Tuesday, the committee announced it had unanimously voted for further strike action after five weeks of talks between junior doctors and the government failed to result in a “credible offer” to end the pay dispute.
📢 STRIKE DATES ANNOUNCEMENT📢 Junior doctors in England to take further #PayRestoration industrial action.
The first strike action will take place from 7am on 20 December to 7am on 23 December. The second will take place from 7am on 3 January until 7am on 9 January. pic.twitter.com/IGjXRX0nV4
— Junior Doctors (@BMA_JuniorDocs) December 5, 2023
The breakdown in talks came just days after the health secretary spoke of her “respect” for junior doctors in a move that highlighted a markedly different tone from her predecessor, Steve Barclay.
After reaching agreement with consultants’ leaders she hoped to then also strike a deal with junior doctors, who make up about half the medical workforce. She had found the leaders of the BMA JDC to be “very constructive”, she said.
The co-chairs said it was “a great shame” that despite a more constructive approach from the government, there was “not enough on offer to shape a credible deal”.
“Without enough progress by the deadline, we have no choice but to take action that demonstrates doctors are as determined as ever in reversing their pay cuts,” they added.
“However, we can still avoid the need for these strikes. We will be ready and willing any time the government wants to talk. If a credible offer can be presented the day before, or even during any action, these strikes can be cancelled.”
Junior doctors are requesting a 35% increase in pay. During the summer, the government said they would receive a 6% wage rise and £1,250.
Cutting waiting lists was one of five pledges that Rishi Sunak made at the start of the year, along with halving inflation this year, growing the economy, making sure national debt is falling, and passing new laws to stop small boat crossings.
Keir Starmer has pointed out that waiting lists have gone up since the prime minister set the goal of reducing them.
At prime minister’s questions last month, the Labour leader said the NHS waiting list stood at 7.8 million – half a million more than in January.
Strikes have been ongoing in the NHS since December 2022, leading to the cancellation or postponement of almost 1.1m appointments.