- Consultation considers minimum service levels that cover emergency care
- So far, young doctors have staged 19 days of strike in hospitals this year.
Doctors could be forced to work on strike days under the Government’s plans to introduce safe minimum staffing levels in hospitals.
The Department of Health is launching a consultation on extending recent legislation to cover more healthcare workers, as consultants begin a two-day strike today.
So far this year, consultants have gone on strike for four days, while doctors in training have gone on strike for 19 days.
Junior doctors will begin their next three-day strike tomorrow, meaning for the first time they will walk out at the same time as consultants.
Health leaders have expressed concern about the “nightmare scenario” and revealed that some patients are having operations postponed two or more times due to strikes, including a growing number of people with cancer.
Young doctors hold banners during a strike, amid a dispute with the government over salaries, in London on April 11 (file photo)
File photograph dated January 18 this year, of a general view of staff on an NHS hospital ward.
The consultation considers the introduction of minimum service levels that would cover “urgent, emergency and urgent hospital health services”.
It follows a consultation earlier this year on the introduction of minimum service levels in ambulance services and would align the UK with countries such as France and Italy, whose services continue in times of strike.
Ministers believe minimum service levels will provide a better balance between supporting workers’ ability to strike and public safety.
A bill on minimum standards for rail and fire and rescue services was passed in July to ensure the sectors continue to operate when there is a strike.
Doctors and nurses were not included, and instead use a system of agreements between local union representatives and hospital bosses to determine minimum levels of medical workers during strike days.
It is unclear when it will actually come into effect, but it is expected to be early 2024 at the earliest.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay could not confirm today whether the measure would be imposed in the next six months, telling Sky News: “We haven’t set a timetable.”
Asked if it was a mistake not to include doctors in the legislation that came into force in July, he said: “No, that is the enabling framework for various sectors.”
He argued that the measure is now necessary to protect “critical” services, such as chemotherapy, dialysis and labor induction.
Barclay argued the move would be “proportionate” as health unions are resorting to “increasing militancy” and claimed they refuse to allow exemptions for some services.
The strikes have so far cost the NHS around £1 billion and the number of canceled appointments and operations is expected to reach one million by the end of this week.
The consultants and junior doctors will go out together again on October 2, 3 and 4, which coincides with the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
The NHS is expected to have a similar staffing level to Christmas Day when both groups are free, with emergency care taking priority.
The Government has given a 6 per cent pay rise to consultants and the same plus a £1,250 lump sum to junior doctors, and has said there will be no further offers.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: ‘Strikes cannot become the status quo. Only if the Government meets the unions can it put an end to this disruption.’