Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said he was "concerned and disappointed" after consultants in England began a 48-hour strike in their continuing dispute with the Government over pay.
As industrial action began this morning, further strike dates were announced for October by the British Medical Association (BMA), which warned politicians to expect "regular action" until negotiations took place.
The latest round of industrial action is expected to cause routine hospital care once again to be cancelled or postponed. It also precedes the summer bank holiday weekend when many NHS staff will be on holiday or taking an extended break.
NHS Providers warned that minimising disruption to services was getting harder and more expensive with every strike.
Further Strikes by Consultants Announced
The latest strike began at 7am this morning and is due to end at 7am on Saturday. During this period, consultants will provide "Christmas Day cover", meaning that emergency care will be provided.
Consultants in England are already preparing for two days of industrial action on 19 and 20 September. But the BMA announced today that consultants were prepared to strike again on 2, 3, and 4 October "in the absence of any progress in discussions with Government".
The BMA argues that consultants have seen their take-home pay fall by more than a third since 2008-09. It wants the Government to present a "credible offer" on addressing "historic losses", as well as a commitment to reform the pay review body process "so that it can be truly independent in reviewing consultant pay".
"No consultant wants to be striking, so we head out to picket lines today with heavy hearts," said Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair. "We would much rather be inside the hospital seeing our patients. But we cannot sit by and watch passively as we are persistently devalued, undermined and forced to watch colleagues leave – much to the detriment of the NHS and patients."
The Department of Health and Social Care said that by accepting the independent pay review body recommendations in full, consultants received a 6% pay increase, taking their average NHS earnings to £134,000. Recent changes to pensions taxation rules meant that a consultant could expect to retire at 65 with an annual pension of £78,000, it said.
Mr Barclay insisted that the pay award "is final", and urged the BMA to call an end to strikes. "I am concerned and disappointed that the BMA has gone ahead with this industrial action which will continue to affect patients and hamper efforts to cut NHS waiting lists," he said this morning.
"Ramping Up Pressure" on NHS Trusts
Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, described a 2-day strike by senior doctors ahead of a bank holiday weekend as "a massive headache for the NHS".
Official figures showed that 897,000 routine procedures and appointments have been delayed due to strikes across the NHS since December. But NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, claimed that the real figure was "likely to be significantly higher" and to have cost the NHS an estimated £1 billion.
"Trust leaders have once again put plans in place for cover and to minimise disruption as far as possible. But that gets harder and more expensive with every strike," Sir Julian said. "Trust leaders understand the strength of feeling among striking staff and why they're taking action," he added, but warned that months of industrial action "is ramping up pressure on already stretched NHS services gearing up for another demanding winter".