The NHS is braced for a surge in demand for emergency treatment after strikes by nurses and paramedics – and as health chiefs step up calls for the Government to negotiate with unions on pay.
Ambulance staff in England and Wales walked out on Wednesday, following action by nurses on Tuesday, with the NHS braced for extra pressure as a knock-on effect of the industrial action.
Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, is considering fast-tracking an NHS pay rise next year in a bid to resolve the dispute but has so far ruled out any movement on current wages.
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital and ambulance services in England, said the next few days will be a "challenging time" due to pent-up demand for services after the strikes.
"I think emergency departments, particularly, are going to feel the strain in those areas where there were strikes, which for ambulance services was in every part of the country apart from the east of England," she told Sky News.
"So some real pressure there, pent-up demand, and also the added pressure of rearranging all of those operations and appointments that needed to be postponed."
Ms Cordery said the extra demand will hit an NHS where there are already "fundamental levels of staff shortages", with frontline workers "significantly overstretched".
"What we have got to see now is the Government come to the table and have a serious discussion and negotiation about pay because this dispute is about pay and it's also about working conditions and keeping patients safe," she said.
In a message to ministers, she said there are over 130,000 vacancies in the NHS and "we are haemorrhaging staff because of pay and working conditions, particularly in more junior bands".
She said the social care system is also "on its knees", which has an impact on the NHS by making it harder for hospitals to discharge patients back into the community.
In a bleak assessment of the NHS this winter, Ms Cordery said “even before the industrial action, we knew that we were in for a tough time”, adding: "Demand is very high, staffing levels aren't where they should be, and we know that we've got flu, which is causing rising levels of hospitalisations, we've got mental health waiting lists going through the roof, we've got COVID coming back now, and we've just had a really cold snap, so if we have another one of those that's going to add into the pot.
"So we are seeing a really tough situation here."
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents most health organisations, said the service "coped as well as could be expected" on Wednesday.
But he said the NHS could not "go on coping" with a winter of strikes and industrial action.
He told BBC Radio 4s Today: "We will repeat the call, which is to trade unions and to the Government to step away from rhetoric and step towards negotiation. We can't drift into more and more industrial action."
On Sky News, he said the strikes were on top of long-standing issues hitting the NHS.
"There are signs of hope looking forward but we're paying the price now for those 10 years of austerity, for the COVID backlog, for not addressing those issues," he said.
"So this winter is going to be incredibly tough. There's nothing we can do about that. But the industrial action adds to what is already a challenging situation."
Mr Taylor also urged the public not to put off seeking treatment. "It's actually not in anyone's interests for people not to come forward," he said.
Allies of the Health Secretary – who was criticised by unions for suggesting striking health workers "made a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients" – revealed he is keen to "speed up the process" to give NHS staff a pay rise early next year to break the deadlock.
NHS staff often have to wait until the pay review process across the public sector is completed, usually in the summer, to receive a backdated rise, even though recommendations are made by an independent review body in April.
But sources close to Mr Barclay told The Daily Telegraph he recognises NHS staff are "feeling the pinch" and will demand action to see any extra money in pay packets "at the earliest opportunity".
"Steve is very keen for this to go ahead at pace and not be dragged out as it has been in the past," the source added.
Meanwhile, the wave of industrial action, fuelled by wages failing to keep pace with soaring inflation, continue around the UK.
Strikes involved National Highways in London and the South East, Unite members working for Highlands and Islands Airports, Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency staff in the North West, Yorkshire and Humber and North Wales, and Rural Payments Agency workers, while Unison members at the Environment Agency are refusing to provide on-call cover for unexpected incidents.
This article contains information from PA Media.