Patient safety will be "close to the line" as junior doctors and consultants stage their longest ever joint strike in England, the Chancellor has said. Jeremy Hunt said it was "incredibly depressing" to learn medics were being paid up to £7,900 to cover a single shift during strike action.
His comments came at the start of a joint 3-day walkout.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said that its junior doctor and consultant members will only provide "Christmas Day" levels of staffing from 7am on Monday until the same time on Thursday.
Hospital dentists from the British Dental Association are also set to walk out during the same time frame, providing emergency care only, while radiographers at 37 NHS trusts in England will also join picket lines for 24 hours from 8am on Tuesday morning.
Strike Shift Pay
The strike launched as it was revealed that the Walton Centre, a neurology unit in Liverpool, paid £7,853 for a doctor to cover a neurosurgery shift for an unspecified length of time during strike action in June. And East Kent Hospitals paid £6,247 for a 13-hour general surgery shift, according to The Times. The figures, obtained under freedom of information laws, revealed that multiple hospitals had paid more than £3,000 for a strike shift, the newspaper reported.
"That is a huge sum of money," Mr Hunt told Times Radio. "That money that is being paid to a doctor to cover that shift is money that can't be spent on taking someone off the waiting list by giving them an urgently needed operation. "And that is why these strikes are so counter-productive when it comes to patients."
Asked about patient safety during the longest ever period of joint strike action, he said: "I think we're getting close to the line, and I don't think we should be taking any risks at all with patient safety. We've offered doctors an above inflation pay rise – it wasn't the Government's suggestion, it was a suggestion that came from an independent pay review body."
And he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Doctors are choosing to strike and what I would say to them is: 'We've offered you an above inflation award that wasn't decided by the Government, it was decided by an independent pay review body.'"
BMA Renews Call for Pay Body Reform
The BMA called for reform to the pay review process. Dr Helen Neary, deputy chair of the BMA consultants committee, told Times Radio: "What consultants are asking for is for fairness in pay – our pay has been eroded by over a third over the past 14 years. And what we're asking for is for reform of our independent review body as they should be the ones who should be setting what pay doctors should get, and the Government has continued to interfere with that process."
She added: "Yes, doctors are paid well, consultants do have a good salary, however… in real terms compared to 2008, doctors are working for free in effect for four months of the year."
On the sums paid to medics to cover strikes, Dr Neary said: "Doctors already work very hard and many doctors are working more than standard full-time hours. And so these extra shifts are additional hours and additional burdens on them and therefore they should be paid at a level that recognises their skill and expertise."
She continued: "Yes, the cost of the strikes has been expensive, but it is reaching the point where it would have been more cost effective for the Government to sit down with doctors and talk to us about our concerns around pay erosion and the impact that is having on patient safety so that we can work forward together to address that, rather than having strike action. But it is down to the Government's refusal to get up to discuss pay issues that has led to this and therefore continued strike action."
Meanwhile Vivek Trivedi, co-chair of the BMA's Junior Doctors' Committee, told Sky News: "The impact of joint strikes is that it puts more pressure on the Government to come to the table. We have enacted a form of strike action which keeps emergency care to make sure that patients in the hospital are still receiving appropriate care in a safe and timely way, which allows us to put this pressure on the Government to come to the table."
NHS England warned that there would be "extreme" disruption during the "unprecedented" strikes. It said that routine care would be brought to "a near standstill" but urged the public to still come forward to seek emergency care.
Meanwhile, health commentators have urged the Government and the unions to end the "dangerous deadlock". Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "The triple walkout will jeopardise patient care, particularly for people with cancer.
NHS Providers called the joint strike a "worrying escalation" in the long-running dispute with Government and said the "stalemate" cannot continue.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: "I'm deeply disappointed and concerned by further co-ordinated strike action which poses continued challenges for the NHS and disruption for patients, and means more will have vital treatment and care delayed. I urge unions to end their relentless strike action."