Almost all routine NHS care in England has been disrupted as junior doctors strike in their latest attempt to force ministers to increase their pay.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said the stoppage would have an enormous impact and lead to huge numbers of patients missing out on planned care.
The picketing which began on Wednesday is due to continue until Saturday.
“The NHS has been preparing extensively for this next set of strikes,” said Powis. “But we know that – with the sheer number of appointments that need to be rescheduled – it will have an enormous impact on routine care for patients and on the waiting list, as procedures can take time to rearrange with multiple teams involved.”
About 27,000 junior doctors stayed off work every day and 196,000 outpatient appointments and operations had to be postponed when they held their last strike, over four days in April.
They are seeking a 35 percent salary rise to restore the value of their pay to 2008-09 levels. The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has said their claim was unreasonable.
“The delay to elective care is what concerns leaders most, and has a real impact on patients, many of whom will have already been waiting a long time only to see their operation cancelled,” said Matthew Taylor, the confederation’s chief executive.
The impact of this can be significant, with patients potentially developing complications or their condition worsening as a result.
“It also means that the waiting list, currently at 7.4 million, is likely to grow further and take longer to clear,” he said.
Fewer consultants are willing to work extra shifts to help cover for striking junior colleagues unless they are paid rates that the British Medical Association, the main doctors’ union, believes are appropriate – but which many trusts see as excessive.
Trusts plan to have as many staff on duty as possible during the strike. But hospitals lobby group NHS Providers voiced concern that too few may be available to work nightshifts.
The BMA said that newly-qualified doctors earn just £14.09 an hour (€15.95), less than a barista at coffee shop chain Pret-a-manger (which pays £14.10, or €15.96), adding that junior doctors have had a 26 per cent real terms pay cut since 2008.
In most European countries, the annual gross salaries of doctors increased in real terms between 2010 and 2020, according to figures released by the OECD.
Salaries in real terms are values that take inflation into account. However, salaries fell in some countries in real terms in the last decade.
In 2020 or the closest year with available data, the annual gross salaries of specialists ranged from €20,200 in Poland to €258,552 in Luxembourg (2015 data). In other words, the difference between doctors paid the most and doctors paid the least is more than tenfold.
“Staff groups including consultants, paramedics, pharmacists and community matrons will be able to support [services], though there’s a worry around finding adequate night cover,” said Saffron Cordery, the organisation’s deputy chief executive.
More than 542,000 consultations and surgical procedures have been rescheduled across the NHS since nurses, ambulance staff, junior doctors and physiotherapists began striking over pay last December.
“This figure will now likely climb in the coming days and weeks, especially if nurses, consultants and radiographers soon vote in favour of industrial action,” Cordery said.
She urged the BMA and ministers to resume negotiations. “This can’t continue,” she said. “We risk sleepwalking into a summer of strikes if talks don’t resume as a matter of urgency.”