- Consultations will take into account minimum service levels that cover emergency care
- Junior doctors have held 19 days of industrial action in hospitals so far this year
Doctors could be forced to work on strike days under government plans to introduce minimum safe staffing levels in hospitals.
The Department of Health is launching a consultation on extending recent legislation to more healthcare workers, as consultants begin a two-day strike today.
Consultants have staged four days of industrial action so far this year, while trainee doctors staged 19 days of strikes.
Junior doctors will begin their next three-day strike tomorrow, meaning they will go out at the same time as consultants for the first time.
Health leaders have raised concerns about the ‘nightmare scenario’ and revealed that some patients are now having operations postponed two or more times due to industrial action, including a growing number of patients with cancer.
Junior doctors hold signs during a strike, amid a dispute with the government over pay, in London on April 11 (file photo)
File photo dated January 18 this year, of a general view of staff on an NHS hospital ward
The consultation considers introducing minimum levels of service that would cover ‘urgent, emergency and time-critical healthcare services in hospitals’.
It follows a consultation earlier this year on the introduction of minimum service levels in ambulance services and would bring Britain in line with countries such as France and Italy, whose services are continuing during times of industrial action.
Ministers believe that minimum service levels will strike a better balance between supporting workers’ ability to strike and the safety of the public.
In July, a bill was passed setting minimum standards for rail, fire and rescue services to ensure the sectors can still function when strikes occur.
Doctors and nurses were not involved, but instead used a system of agreements between local union representatives and hospital bosses to determine the minimum number of doctors working during union days.
It is unclear when the measure will actually come into effect, but it is expected that this will be early 2024 at the earliest.
Health Minister Steve Barclay could not today confirm whether the measure would be imposed in the next six months. He told Sky News: “We have not set a timetable.”
Asked whether it was a mistake not to include medics in the legislation that came into force in July, he said: ‘No, that is the enabling framework for a number of sectors.’
He argued that the move is now necessary to protect “time-critical” services such as chemotherapy, dialysis and induction of labor.
Mr Barclay argued that the measure would be ‘proportionate’ as health unions are resorting to ‘increasing militancy’ and would refuse to grant exemptions for some services.
Strikes have cost the NHS around £1 billion so far and the number of canceled appointments and operations is expected to reach one million by the end of this week.
Consultants and trainee doctors will go out together again on October 2, 3 and 4, to coincide with the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
The NHS is expected to see a ‘Christmas Day’ staffing level when both groups are off, with emergency care the priority.
The government has given a 6 per cent pay rise to consultants and the same plus a £1,250 lump sum for trainee 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 the government working with the unions can put an end to this disruption.”