Health Secretary Steve Barclay and the British Medical Association (BMA) should enter “urgent” talks to end strikes to prevent further harm being caused to patients, London’s most senior doctor has warned, as junior doctors and consultants began a three-day walkout.
Dr Chris Streather, regional medical director for NHS London, said that 11 months of strikes by health workers had left the NHS at a “tipping point” and trusts “cannot keep” cancelling planned care to keep emergency services safe.
Both sets of staff will deliver “Christmas Day” levels of staffing throughout the strike, which began at 7am this morning and will last until the same time on Thursday. More than a million operations and appointments have been cancelled since industrial action in the NHS began last December, but officials believe the figure is far higher as hospitals are not booking patients in on strike days to save having to reschedule them.
Speaking to the Standard, Dr Streather said the public could be “confident that they will be taken care of if there is an emergency” but that the “cumulative disruption” of several rounds of strike action was “really difficult for the NHS to cope with”.
“We have cancelled a lot of planned activity to keep emergency services safe, but we have reached a tipping point where we can’t carry on doing that. We have made this point to the unions and the Secretary of State.
“Making sure people are safe on the day is what hits the headlines and we sensibly prioritise that, but it is also our job in the NHS to give a voice to people who are waiting at home that have had their treatment delayed. I’m not sure that either the unions or the Secretary of State are listening to that voice as intently as maybe they should be.”
He said the need to resolve strikes was “becoming urgent” but that both sides would need to find a compromise. The BMA insist they are open to talks, but Mr Barclay maintains that a pay offer of 6 per cent to consultants and 8.8 per cent to junior doctors is “fair” and won't be reopened.
The BMA is seeking a 35 per cent pay rise for junior doctors to correct a real-terms fall in income since 2008. However, the union has not demanded a specific figure for consultants.
Dr Streather continued: “I would send a plea to both the unions and the Secretary of State to get involved in meaningful talks, rather than metaphorically sitting with their arms folded and adopting quite rigid positions.
“The current standoff is not leading to resolution and it is having consequences for patients who are waiting for care.
“This cannot become business as usual - the NHS can’t operate in second gear when the public deserve a health service that operates in fourth gear all the time.”
Meanwhile, the BMA said a new survey of 1,765 adults showed that Government attempts to blame medics for “cripplingly long” waiting lists have not convinced the public.
More than two in five respondents blamed the Government for the increase in waiting lists for elective treatment in England, which have risen from 2.6 million in 2010 to almost 7.7 million.
This is almost three times the number who blame striking doctors (15 per cent), said the BMA.
Professor Phil Banfield, the BMA chair of council, said: “Doctors are fed up of being told we are the problem with the NHS.
“It is not fair for the Government to continue to blame doctors or other healthcare workers for their own failure to properly resource the health service in England.
“What we see today is that the public largely sees through that excuse. Many more appointments and operations are cancelled outside the strike days because of a shortage of beds, staff or operating capacity due to the relative chronic underfunding.”
NHS Providers called the joint strike a “worrying escalation” in the long-running dispute with Government and said the “stalemate” cannot continue.
Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “It will mean delay, disappointment and disruption for tens of thousands of patients.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “I’m deeply disappointed and concerned by further co-ordinated strike action which poses continued challenges for the NHS and disruption for patients, and means more will have vital treatment and care delayed.”
“I urge unions to end their relentless strike action,” he added. “Doctors have received a fair and reasonable pay rise – as recommended by the independent pay review body, which we’ve accepted in full.”