NHS plans stress-test ahead of possible strikes and winter pressure

The NHS in England has been ordered to stress-test the system ahead of severe winter pressures and possible mass-strikes from health workers.

Health leaders have ordered a “multi-day exercise” – called exercise Arctic Willow – to test the system’s response to “concurrent operational and winter pressures”.

NHS England has written to local health bodies detailing preparations for potential industrial action in the health service.

“Trade unions representing NHS staff have advised the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that they are in dispute over the 2022/23 pay award,” the letter states.

“A number of the unions are balloting or have signalled their intention to ballot their NHS members to take part in industrial action.

“The NHS’s task now is to be prepared for any potential industrial action so there is minimal disruption to patient care and emergency services can continue to operate as normal.”

The letter states that while the negations are for Government, it is important for local bodies to maintain “constructive relationships with trade unions and staff representatives”.

It sets out a number of actions which are taking place to prepare for industrial action.

This includes communications with patients that emergency services will continue as normal.

On testing the system, the letter adds: “This will include Exercise Arctic Willow – a multi-day exercise for Integrated Care Boards (working with trusts) planned to take place w/c 14 November.

“This will seek to explore the health and social care response to multiple, concurrent operational and winter pressures, and the interdependencies with Local Resilience Forum partners in responding to these pressures.”

More detail on the exercise is to be set out “in due course”, the letter adds.

Hundreds of thousands of health workers from various trade unions are being balloted over industrial action.

The Royal College of Nursing’s first ever ballot on UK-wide strike action ends on Wednesday.

Meanwhile around 350,000 members of Unison working for more than 250 health trusts and boards across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are being balloted.

Porters, nurses, security guards, paramedics, cleaners, midwives, occupational therapists and other NHS staff are among those being asked if they want to mount a campaign of industrial action.

Around 50,000 Unison health employees in Scotland are already being balloted.

Some 15,000 ambulance workers at 11 trusts in England and Wales with the GMB union are also being balloted.

Meanwhile a strike ballot of Royal College of Midwives members will open on November 11.

The British Medical Association is set to ballot junior doctors in January.