Rishi Sunak has insisted strikes are the "number one reason" for record-high NHS waiting times in England as he faced pressure from medics calling for conciliation talks over pay to end the walkouts.
The Prime Minister said the pre-pandemic backlog had been expected to improve before widespread industrial action was launched as he was challenged over the claim on Tuesday. It comes amid the longest-ever joint strike by junior doctors and consultants in England, coinciding with the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "The reason that waiting lists are going up is because we've got industrial action because doctors are on strike. Now, I've sat down and tried to do the reasonable thing…" GMB presenter Susanna Reid intervened to say: "No, that might be one of the reasons."
Mr Sunak continued: "That is the number one reason. But if I could just finish, if I could just finish, it's really important… we had stabilised it, it had stopped going up and it was forecast to start going down until industrial action started. That's the reality of it."
BMA proposes Talks at Conciliation Service Acas
Consultants in England from the British Medical Association (BMA) have written to Mr Sunak saying they will not call any more strikes for four weeks to "facilitate negotiations taking place". Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA consultants committee, has invited the Prime Minister to enter talks with conciliation service Acas "if necessary" to prevent walkouts running into winter.
Asked whether ministers were willing to meet medics, Mr Sunak told BBC Breakfast: "Of course we are, we've tried multiple times." But he defended the pay rise of around 9% already given to junior doctors, while the BMA has argued they need a 35% increase to make up for what it says are years of below-inflation rises.
The BMA has said medics would provide emergency cover only during the 3-day walkout — also known as 'Christmas Day cover' — which began on Monday at 7am. The letter states that if medics do not receive a "credible deal we can put to our members" by 3 November, then strike dates will be set for November and December.
It comes as radiographers are set to join doctors on picket lines at hospitals across England, heaping additional pressure on NHS services already disrupted by strike action. The Society of Radiographers (SoR) said staff at 37 trusts in England are set to strike for 24 hours from 8am.
Hospital dentists from the British Dental Association are also staging a 3-day strike, providing emergency care only.
Warning of "Extreme Disruption"
Earlier this week, NHS England warned that there would be "extreme" disruption during the unprecedented strike. It said routine care would be brought to "a near standstill" but urged the public still to come forward to seek emergency care when needed.
Meanwhile, health commentators have urged the Government and the unions to end the deadlock. On Monday, Marina Glasgow, Acas's chief conciliator, said the service has a team of experts who are ready to help with the disputes.
Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, described the letter as an "olive branch", which trust leaders hope could be the first step to a resolution.
The NHS Confederation warned that unless the dispute ends, the health service will not achieve the Prime Minister's ambition to reduce the NHS waiting list.