Fears that hundreds of thousands of operations are at risk in what has been described as an “unprecedented” wave of strikes by junior doctors have been raised by health professionals.
Medics will stage full walkouts from September 12 to 16, on October 5, 6, 7, 10 and 11, November 14 to 18 and December 5 to 9 in the ongoing dispute over a controversial new contract.
But a host of health organisations have questioned the decision to extend the bitter industrial campaign, which has been called “extremely worrying” and a “devastating blow to patients”.
The Government and British Medical Association (BMA) remain at loggerheads over the contract, which the Department for Health says will provide a seven-day NHS.
Reports suggest the latest raft of disruption was not fully backed by BMA members, with the Daily Mail reporting that a leaked ballot showed just 31.5% of members supported a full walkout which was time-limited.
But the BMA said it was “absolutely behind” the decision for further action.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS leaders, said the planned strikes could bring disruption to millions of patients.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s very concerning - we’re talking about five days in September, which is just 12 days’ notice to prepare, which is the shortest time we’ve ever had to prepare, and then we’re talking about four sets of five days of strikes.
“That’s equivalent to half a million - 500,000 - cancelled operations and four million lost outpatient appointments, so what we’re talking about is a completely unprecedented scale of disruption and negative impact on patients; it’s extremely worrying.”
The Patients Association said the decision to strike had triggered “apprehension” among the public.
Chief executive Katherine Murphy said: “This is a devastating blow to patients, and a destructive next step as far as any kind of negotiations go.”
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust health charity, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the planned strikes would represent a “quite significant step up” in terms of what is likely to be asked of senior doctors tasked with ensuring that care continues during industrial action.
He added there had been a “quite obvious shift in the opinion” of medical leaders in relation to the strikes.
In the wake of the industrial action, Prime Minister Theresa May accused the BMA of failing to put patients first and “playing politics” - something doctors have denied.
BMA chairman Dr Mark Porter said: “I have to say it beggars belief that we can be accused of playing politics in this when the stated reason of the Government proceeding is that it was in their party manifesto. That, to me, is playing politics.”
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Six strikes have already taken place across England during the lengthy dispute, causing disruption to hundreds of thousands of patients who have had appointments and operations cancelled.
In May it looked as though a breakthrough had been reached in the dispute after both sides agreed to a new deal.
Then in July, the Government announced that it would impose a new contract after junior doctors and medical students voted to reject the contract brokered between health leaders and the BMA.
The BMA said it will call off the strikes if the Government agrees to stop the imposition.
A spokesman for the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges said they are “disappointed” at the prospect of further sustained industrial action, while Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council, said the strike represented a “serious escalation” of the dispute.
He added: “The first priority must be to protect patients from harm.”
But Dr Porter sought to ease concerns, and said staff on duty will be more senior than those they might normally see and that patients “should not be concerned”.
Dr Ellen McCourt, who chairs the BMA junior doctors’ committee, said: “We want to resolve this dispute through talks, but in forcing through a contract that junior doctors have rejected and which they don’t believe is good for their patients or themselves, the Government has left them with no other choice.”
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Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told Today that her college had not signed up to the statement issued by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.
She said: “We felt we couldn’t support this statement first of all because we would rather make a positive suggestion.
“The statement does not propose a way forward and we have proposed a way forward.
“Secondly, we feel it’s important to note that we are neither a trades union nor a political organisation and it is not for us to take sides or be partisan in this argument.”
She also said her college had not supported the statement because members felt it was “unjust” to imply that junior doctors “do not put patient safety first and foremost”.
Professor Modi insisted she had “absolute confidence” that consultants and trainees who do not strike would “rally” to ensure patient safety during industrial action.