The NHS in England is bracing itself for one of the toughest strikes in its history this week, with "routine care virtually at a standstill", its medical director has said.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis warned of the mass disruption expected across the NHS as consultants move to providing just emergency cover.
Consultant doctors and hospital-based dentists will be on strike for 48 hours from 7am on Thursday until 7am on Saturday. It follows the longest period of industrial action in the history of the NHS by junior doctors, which lasted 5 days, from last Thursday to Tuesday morning.
Health leaders have said no other clinicians can provide cover for consultants, so any planned care delivered by junior doctors or other healthcare professionals that requires even remote consultant supervision will need to be rescheduled. This means a "significant amount" of planned care involving junior doctors will be affected, NHS England said.
It is thought the junior doctor strike led to tens of thousands of appointments being postponed, but experts are warning of an even bigger impact from consultants going on strike.
Challenging to Get Services Back on Track
Sir Stephen said: "This could undoubtedly be the most severe impact we have ever seen in the NHS as a result of industrial action, with routine care virtually at a standstill for 48 hours."
Despite cooperating with the British Medical Association and the British Dental Association to prioritise emergency and urgent care, "in the eighth month of industrial action, and with more than 600,000 appointments already affected, it's becoming even more challenging to get services back on track after each round of action", Sir Stephen added.
Last week the Government announced pay increases for millions of public-sector workers, including doctors. Most eligible dentists and doctors will receive at least a 6% pay rise, while hospital consultants also will receive a 6% rise.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal was the "final offer" and that there will be "no more talks on pay". But the BMA said the increase was a "savage real-terms pay cut" and called it "derisory".
Following the announcement, hospital consultants said they will also strike for two more days, on 24 and 25 August.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "Leaders anticipate serious disruption over the coming days despite their diligent efforts to prepare. A consultants' strike is something of an unknown quantity, and while there are plans in place for Christmas Day levels of cover in emergency care, the patience of patients may be tested as wider services are reduced and operations postponed.
"This, in essence, is two Christmas Days back to back and follows a working week's worth of walkouts from other staff, so it's very much a step into the unknown."