Doctors would be forced to work during strikes under government plans to deal with dangers caused by successive strikes.
Ministers are proposing the introduction of “minimum level of service” regulations, meaning some doctors and nurses would be forced to work during a strike if public safety was at risk of being compromised.
The plans come amid fears of widespread chaos in the NHS as a result of this week’s strikes.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, said such measures were necessary in the face of a “coordinated and calculated strike” by young and experienced doctors.
The consultants will embark on a two-day strike on Tuesday. They will be joined by junior doctors on Wednesday – the first time both groups have gone on strike on the same day – in what senior NHS leaders have described as a “nightmare” scenario.
Both groups will picket again from October 2-4, in strikes timed to coincide with the Conservative party conference.
‘Relentless and escalating’ action
Writing for The Telegraph, Barclay said: “My top priority during the ongoing industrial action is to protect the lives and health of patients” and warned of the dangers posed by the “relentless and escalating” action by the British Medical Association ( BMA).
He added: “In the face of continued and growing strike action, we will continue to take action to protect patient safety and ensure the health service has the staff it needs to operate safely and effectively.”
Even during the most extreme strikes, hospitals are supposed to continue offering basic emergency and urgent care in what is known as “Christmas Day” coverage.
But there are concerns that too many gaps are left unfilled, that too much is left to local arrangements and that patients are deteriorating.
A consultation, launched on Tuesday, considers extending anti-strike laws and introducing minimum service levels that would cover “time-critical hospital health services” as well as emergency and urgent care.
Officials said this could cover hospital staff, including nurses and doctors, and would bring the UK in line with countries such as France and Italy, whose services continue in times of strike.
Health service leaders said NHS patients were this week at “the highest level of risk in living memory”. They warned that cancer patients are seeing increasing delays in their treatment due to strikes, with some having appointments canceled up to three times.
A bill on minimum standards for passenger rail services, ambulance services and fire and rescue services was passed in July to ensure that essential services continue to operate.
Initially, ministers discussed including doctors and nurses in their scope. But they decided not to, meaning the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act does not cover most hospital services, which rely heavily on a system of “waivers” – agreements between unions and NHS employers about what services will be protected.
As a result, any extension of legal powers to protect patients during doctors’ strikes is unlikely to come into force until early next year at the earliest.
During recent strikes, even where agreements have been reached, some have failed, with particular concern for cancer patients who should have been given priority treatment.
Freedom of information disclosures suggest around 30,000 cancer patients have already had appointments and treatments delayed.