The health secretary has accused NHS staff in England of planning “politically timed” industrial action as he outlined proposals to extend strike laws to ensure doctors and nurses in hospitals provide a minimum level of cover.
As consultants began another 48-hour strike on Tuesday as part of a row over pay, one of their representatives told Steve Barclay that the plans – which are unlikely to come into force until the new year – would “only save up problems for later”.
However, some hope the dispute may also be resolved also emerged after the BMA said its consultants’ committee and government representatives recently had “constructive conversations” about how the dispute could be settled.
Barclay told broadcasters the government recognised the right to strike as important but action was needed to reach a balance between that right and the rights of patients to critically important services such as chemotherapy and dialysis.
The planned regulations, which are open to consultation and come as the government is examining the implications of new employment law in parts of the UK where health is devolved, would mean doctors and nurses have to provide a certain level of cover after being issued with a “work notice” by employers.
Consultations on minimum service levels have taken place for ambulance staff, fire and rescue services, and passenger rail workers, after the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act became law.
NHS Providers, which represents health managers, has warned the health service is in “uncharted territory” as it faces four days of strikes by doctors in England, with thousands of patient appointments expected to be cancelled.
Barclay claimed that when exemptions had been agreed locally between the NHS and British Medical Association (BMA) representatives, the doctors’ body’s national committee had refused 17 of those exemptions in August. “That is why it is necessary that we have some safeguards in place in the way some countries do,” he told Sky News.
Asked why the government had escalated its approach to the hospital strikes, he added: “We have seen this escalation, increasing militancy, a desire politically to time strikes, including with the Conservative conference.”
The BMA meanwhile released a letter to Rishi Sunak and Barclay in which Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of BMA consultants committee, said the organisation had always been clear that “strikes could be avoided if the government was to present us with a credible offer that we could put to our members”.
Sharma opened by saying: “We are grateful to your officials for the constructive conversations about how we may settle this dispute.”
Dr Tom Dolphin, a member of the BMA’s consultants committee, said the minimum staffing bill would not bring an end to the dispute.
“If you bring in legislation to try and crush a very legitimate dispute like this it doesn’t end the dispute. It just suppresses it and saves up problems for later,” he said, adding that it was “very much in the government’s court” in terms of making a pay offer.