Junior doctors in England will go on strike for three consecutive days from Monday, in the most extensive disruption for the NHS and patients since a wave of industrial action by healthcare workers began in December.
Unlike nurses and ambulance workers, who maintained emergency and other critical cover during walkouts, junior doctors have not agreed to similar arrangements, leaving hospital chiefs scrambling to maintain services.
This week involves multiple strikes by workers seeking higher pay amid the cost of living crisis, including teachers in England and more than 100,000 civil servants who will walk out on the day of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget.
Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents senior health managers across England, said the industrial action by junior doctors was as of “a different order of magnitude” from other strikes the service had experienced since December.
He added this was partly because of its duration but also the absence of so-called derogations, meaning critical services would have to be covered by consultants and other NHS staff.
Hartley said non-urgent treatment for patients would be significantly reduced and warned of “potentially some risk to urgent cases that may need to be postponed if the consultant isn’t available because they’re covering for junior doctors”.
The British Medical Association, the union that represents junior doctors, said in the event of “a major and unpredictable mass casualty event or major incident, which is not related to the provision of NHS services and that cannot be accommodated within existing resources”, it had agreed with NHS England a process by which members could be requested to return to work.
In a ballot of junior doctors by the BMA last month, in which more than three-quarters participated, 98 per cent voted to strike in pursuit of a 35 per cent pay rise.
The BMA said pay had been cut by more than a quarter since 2008 despite workloads and waiting lists being at record highs.
On Sunday the BMA launched an advertising campaign, noting that sandwich chain Pret A Manger had announced it would pay up to £14.10 per hour to staff while a junior doctor made £14.09. “Thanks to this government you can make more serving coffee than saving patients,” said the BMA advertisement.
Junior doctors who belong to the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, a smaller union, will also strike between Monday and Wednesday.
On Saturday, BMA leaders rejected an eleventh hour offer from health secretary Steve Barclay to join “formal pay talks on the same basis other health unions accepted, including calling off next week’s strike”.
Dr Vivek Trivedi and Dr Robert Laurenson, co-chairs of the BMA junior doctors committee in England, said: “Until we have a credible [pay] offer, we are not in a position to call them off.”
The Royal College of Nursing, Unison, GMB and Unite are in talks with ministers over pay increases and have suspended strikes in the meantime.
Rishi Sunak said: “It is very disappointing that the junior doctors union are not engaging with the government.
“We are actually having constructive dialogue with other unions who have accepted our offer to come in and talk . . . I would urge the junior doctors to follow suit.”
Barclay said he wanted to find “a fair [pay] settlement which recognises the crucial role of junior doctors and the wider economic pressures facing the UK”.
Meanwhile teachers in England will strike on Wednesday and Thursday, with the Department for Education under increasing pressure to improve its pay offer to members of the National Education Union for 2022-23.
Strikes organised by teaching unions in Scotland and Wales have mostly been suspended after the Scottish and Welsh governments improved their pay offers. More than 100,000 civil servants represented by the PCS union will walk out on Wednesday, the day of the Budget, to demand higher pay.
On the railways, meanwhile, fresh disruption is likely on Thursday and Saturday, when members of the RMT union walk out at 14 train operators.
The strikes are going ahead despite a breakthrough in the RMT’s separate dispute with infrastructure owner Network Rail. RMT members are voting on whether to accept an improved pay offer from Network Rail.