THOUSANDS of junior doctors have begun the first all-out strike in the history of the NHS after the Health Secretary said the Government would not be “blackmailed” into dropping its manifesto pledge for a seven-day health service.
A dispute between the British Medical Association (BMA) and Government over a new junior doctor contract has resulted in an unprecedented full strike – building on previous walk-outs in which juniors on emergency wards stayed in work.
A late plea from medical leaders for David Cameron to step in to avert the strike was not taken up yesterday, meaning workers are striking today and tomorrow from 8am to 5pm.
Junior doctors also staged a candlelit vigil at the Department of Health’s Quarry House headquarters in Leeds last night in a symbolic late plea calling for Government to reverse plans to impose its terms on juniors from August.
NHS trusts across the region have been forced to postpone thousands of appointments and procedures due to staffing pressures, with more than 4,000 outpatient appointments in Leeds, Sheffield, York and Mid Yorkshire among those affected.
According to figures from NHS England, almost 113,000 outpatient appointments and nearly 13,000 planned operations will need to be rearranged nationally.
Dr Ffion Wells, a GP trainee living in Roundhay, helped to organise last night’s vigil. She said: “It’s not something that’s been taken lightly and all of us deeply regret the delay in treatment some patients will face but we have made the decision based on the longer term impact this contract will cause for patients and the NHS as a whole.”
Strike pickets will be staged outside almost every major hospital in Yorkshire today, while first aid and #MeetTheDoctors workshops will also take place over the next two days.
Senior medical leaders from more than a dozen royal colleges and faculties pleaded with Prime Minister David Cameron to step into the dispute to break the stalemate between the BMA and Government yesterday.
A letter co-signed by health chiefs said: “At this 11th hour, we call upon you to intervene, bring both parties back to the negotiating table, end this damaging stand-off, and initiate an honest debate about the serious difficulties facing UK health services.”
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, also pleaded for an end to the dispute. She said: “On behalf of the patients of this country, we plead with the Government and the BMA at this late stage to talk and reach an amicable solution.”
But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday stood firm over plans to impose the deal and told the House of Commons that keeping patients safe during the walk-outs remains the priority.
He said: “The impact of the next two days will be unprecedented with over 110,000 outpatient appointments and over 12,500 operations cancelled.
“However, the NHS has made exhaustive preparations in order to try to make sure patients remain safe.”
The Health Secretary urged the BMA to think again about Government’s offer, as shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander described the first day of the strike as “one of the saddest days in the history of the NHS”.
Ms Alexander questioned why Mr Hunt is so determined to “railroad this contract through” instead of “road testing it” as MPs had called for. She said: “The Health Secretary claimed yesterday that a phased imposition is the same as a pilot but can he explain how imposition on a predetermined timescale with no opportunity to right the wrongs of his proposed contract and with no independent assessment of its impact on patient care is the same as a pilot?”
DOCTORS’ STRIKE Q&A
• Why is this strike worse?
NHS leaders are more worried about the latest strike because junior doctors are withdrawing full labour, including emergency care. This puts the NHS under increased pressure, although routine operations and appointments have been cancelled so staff can concentrate on patients in most need.
• What is the dispute about?
The Government is intent on introducing a new contract for doctors working up to consultant level to replace one it says is outdated.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to cut the number of hours over a weekend for which junior doctors can claim extra pay, while offsetting this with a hike in basic pay.
This has proved a major sticking point in the row with the British Medical Association (BMA) - whether Saturdays should attract extra “unsocial” payments.
Currently, 7pm to 7am Monday to Friday and the whole of Saturday and Sunday attract a premium rate of pay for junior doctors.
The imposed contract, due to come into force in August, has an increase in basic salary of 13.5% but 7am to 5pm on Saturdays will be regarded as a normal working day. There will still be premium rates for Saturday evenings and all of Sunday.
The BMA has rejected these plans.
• Wasn’t there something about death rates?
Yes. Jeremy Hunt angered junior doctors by repeated references to higher death rates for patients in NHS hospitals at weekends.
While the research does suggest thousands more people may die following admission at weekends than during the week, researchers have been very cautious about suggesting that staffing issues are to blame.
Doctors accuse Mr Hunt of conflating the arguments by saying that unless contracts are reformed immediately, patients will continue to die.
• What happens now?
The BMA is launching a judicial review and other pressure groups have also launched legal challenges over the legitimacy of the contract.
There is a suggestion that doctors could walk out indefinitely if the Government imposes the contract.
• What impact has the strike had on patients?
The latest strike will see more than 125,000 operations and appointments cancelled and needing to be rearranged.
This is on top of almost 25,000 procedures cancelled as a result of previous strike action.