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Over a Million Appointments Lost from NHS Strikes in England

The number of NHS appointments cancelled due to strike action by health workers in England has topped one million, according to latest NHS figures. The cumulative total of acute inpatient and outpatient appointments rescheduled stood at 1,015,067, according to statistics released last night by NHS England.

The new milestone, dubbed "damaging and demoralising" by NHS Providers, was reached in the wake of the first ever joint strike by both junior doctors and consultants last week. A repeat of the joint action is planned for next week unless a solution can be reached.

Last week's strike saw 129,913 inpatient and outpatient appointments rescheduled.

At the peak of the action, on Wednesday 20 September, there were 26,802 staff absent from work due to industrial action.

Currently both junior doctors and consultants have been offered 6% pay rises, with an additional "consolidated £1250 increase" promised for junior doctors. Steve Barclay, England's Health and Social Care Secretary, has described these as "final" awards.

Earlier this month the BMA's mandate on industrial action was renewed for a further 6 months, and junior doctors' leaders — who are asking for a 35% increase — vowed to continue to strike until the Government produced "a credible offer on pay". Consultants want an above-inflation award of 11%. The BMA has warned that politicians can expect "regular action" until negotiations take place.

Additional Financial Burden Now Tops £1 Billion

The financial cost of the campaign of industrial action, ongoing since December 2022, had now reached £1 billion, according to NHS Providers, whose deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery, commented: "With resources severely stretched as we head into winter, this is a wholly unwelcome additional burden the NHS can ill-afford." 

However, Ms Cordery added that the immediate concern was with patients awaiting care or treatment, causing "distress" to them and their families. "Behind every delay there is a real and human cost," she said. "How bad does it have to get before we see an end to these damaging and demoralising industrial disputes?" she asked, pointing out that "every effort" had been made to mitigate the impact of successive strikes. 

According to Ms Cordery, the official headline figures told only a "small part" of the story, as they captured only those procedures and appointments known to have been rescheduled. In reality "thousands more patients" will have been affected, because "trusts are simply not booking in care for strike days known well in advance", she said.

Last month the NHS Confederation described the official figures as the "tip of the iceberg" and said the true numbers of cancellations due to strike action could be double those reported. Last week, the organisation's chief executive, Matthew Taylor, warned that the growing backlog from cancellations and ensuing complications could heighten pressures on primary care, A&E units, and walk-in centres.

"Incalculable Cost" on Staff Morale 

As well as the disruption to patients, there has also been an "incalculable cost on local employee relations and on morale", Ms Cordery said. "Worst of all", there seemed little hope of a way through when "Government and the unions, the key parties in this dispute, aren't talking to each other." She urged "a decisive move to bring about a breakthrough".

BMA council chairman Professor Phil Banfield said he was "extremely sorry" for the disruption to patients, but that doctors had suffered "years of relative pay erosion", and it was in the Government's hands to resolve the impasse. "The longer the Government buries its head in the sand, the more both strikes and waiting lists cost the public purse. It's a no-brainer to invest in the future of the NHS workforce rather than waste further money refusing to pitch a credible pay offer."

Last week, BBC News reported — based on Freedom of Information requests — that the BMA had been advising doctors to do overtime and to book locum shifts before and after the strike action "in order to make up for lost pay during strikes". It said that a single trust in Wales had paid more than £3 million for extra staffing during the strikes, with consultants paid £261 an hour to provide cover for striking junior doctors.

Public Sympathy Strained

While the public has generally been supportive of the strikes, there are signs that sympathy may be stretched. A YouGov poll last week showed 56% support for junior doctors versus 37% opposed. However, there was only 42% support for senior doctors going on strike, with 50% opposed to them taking industrial action.

At the weekend, The Sun newspaper described Prof Banfield as a "militant doctors' union boss" living in a "luxury £1.4m countryside mansion". Prof Banfield tweeted a response from his hospital, where he said he was "on hour 49 of my 60-hour weekend on call", that his house had only four bedrooms, and similar houses could be bought for one-third of the price.

Figures released earlier this month showed that the NHS waiting list in England stood at 7.68 million as of July this year, up from 7.57 million in June and the highest number since records began in August 2007.

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