Junior doctors in England begin a 5-day strike today — described as the longest walkout of its kind in the history of the NHS.
The British Medical Association (BMA) urged the Government to return to the negotiating table in a bid to resolve the long-running row over pay in the NHS, which has already led to a series of strikes and thousands of cancelled operations and consultations.
BMA leaders Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi said: "We can call this strike off today if the UK Government will simply follow the example of the Government in Scotland and drop their nonsensical precondition of not talking whilst strikes are announced and produce an offer which is credible to the doctors they are speaking with.
"The pay offer on the table to junior doctors in Scotland and how it was reached throws into sharp relief the obstinate approach being taken by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay.
"The Health Secretary has said there can be no talks while strikes are planned — Scotland has proved him wrong. He said above 5% wasn't realistic — Scotland proved him wrong. He refused to even acknowledge the concept of pay restoration — Scotland proved this is not only possible but essential."
The BMA leaders said talks had to be resumed, adding: "The complete inflexibility we see from the UK Government today is baffling, frustrating, and ultimately destructive for everyone who wants waiting lists to go down and NHS staffing numbers to go up.
"The Government has missed chance after chance to provide a credible offer and potentially bring to an end the industrial action by junior doctors in England."
"Fraying the Fabric of the NHS"
NHS Providers has urged both sides to resume talks in a bid to head off more industrial action. Deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery, said: "The impact of these disputes is fraying the fabric of the NHS, held together by a unique sense of commitment and shared endeavour across the workforce that has served it so well over so many years. We lose that at our peril.
"The disruption for many thousands of patients and the potential harm of delaying their treatment is a huge and growing risk for the NHS to manage. Trusts will hardly have time to draw breath after a five-day walkout by junior doctors before consultants strike for two days, followed by a 2-day strike by radiographers. The domino effect of repeated waves of industrial action is eroding the fundamental relationship between trust leaders and their staff."
Ms Cordery pledged that NHS trusts would "continue to do everything they can to limit disruption and keep patients safe", but that was "getting harder and more expensive with every strike". She warned that 8 consecutive months of industrial action across the NHS had resulted in more than 651,000 routine procedures and appointments being rescheduled, "hampering efforts to cut waiting lists".
Polling by YouGov showed that public support for strikes has remained consistent since the beginning of the year. Nurses have the strongest public backing, with three in five Britons supporting them and just three in 10 opposed, whilst ambulance workers had similar levels of support, with 58% in favour and 33% opposed.
Pay Demand "Unreasonable", Says Health Secretary
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: "It is disappointing that the BMA is going ahead with further strike action. This 5-day walkout by junior doctors will have an impact on thousands of patients, put patient safety at risk and hamper efforts to cut NHS waiting lists.
"We were in discussions about pay and a range of other measures to improve the working lives of junior doctors until their representatives collapsed the negotiations by announcing further strikes. A pay demand of 35% or more is unreasonable and risks fuelling inflation, which makes everyone poorer.
"Earlier this week I held a round table with doctors in training to talk about other key issues that affect them so we can work together to make the NHS a better place for all. We recently published the first ever NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which includes measures to better support staff, improve training and double the number of medical school places by 2031.
"If the BMA shows willingness to move significantly from their current pay demands and cancels these damaging and disruptive strikes, we can get around the table to find a fair deal to resolve this dispute."
NHS national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: "We will now see industrial action on 11 out of the next 14 days, so we are entering an incredibly busy, disruptive period for the NHS."