Thousands of junior doctors are launching a three-day strike on Monday in a dispute over pay and conditions.
Members of the British Medical Association (BMA) in England will mount picket lines outside hospitals across the country on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week in the longest ever period of strikes by junior doctors.
It comes ahead of a week of walkouts by several trade unions on Budget day in what will be one of the biggest single days of industrial action in years and will include teachers, civil servants, university staff, London Underground workers and BBC journalists.
Rallies and demonstrations will be held across the country, including a big protest in Westminster. Public sector unions have criticised the government over its handling of the pay disputes, which have been escalating for months. Progress has been made in Wales and Scotland after negotiations with ministers, but unions say the Westminster government is taking a completely different approach.
NHS leaders have said they are worried that the walkout by junior doctors will take disruption caused by recent strikes to the next level, posing a risk to patient safety and setting back work to tackle care backlogs. Talks between the government and other health unions will continue this week, holding out hope of a breakthrough in the long-running NHS pay dispute.
The BMA says that junior doctors could earn more money “serving coffee than saving patients”, with newly qualified medics earning £14.09 an hour - less than a barista in a coffee shop. It also says junior doctors in England will have suffered a 26% real-terms cut to their pay since 2008/09.
An advertising campaign launched by the trade union says: “Pret a Manger has announced it will pay up to £14.10 per hour. A junior doctor makes just £14.09. Thanks to this government you can make more serving coffee than saving patients. This week junior doctors will take strike action so they are paid what they are worth.”
Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi, BMA junior doctors committee co-chairs, said: “Is £14.09 an hour really all junior doctors are worth? These are people who can be providing life-saving care, having trained intensively at medical school, and racking up around £100,000 worth of debt in the process.
“We are fully supportive of any worker getting an inflation-matching pay rise, and it is worth thinking on the fact that the government has cut junior doctors’ pay by so much that they could earn more serving coffee.
“Is it any surprise that junior doctors are looking for jobs abroad or in other fields when the government is telling them they are worth more than a quarter less than they were in 2008? Losing such valuable clinicians to other countries and professions when waiting lists are at record highs means patients will suffer even more than they are already.
“This is why doctors are going on strike. We are fighting to restore our pay. We are fighting to restore our value. We are fighting to restore our workforce to make the NHS an effective healthcare system again.”
The BMA said junior doctors will not provide emergency care during any strike, adding trusts will need to arrange emergency cover to ensure patient safety.
PM says strike action is ‘disappointing’
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it is “disappointing” that the BMA is “not engaging with the government” and urged junior doctors to enter talks. He told reporters on his flight to the US: “We are actually having constructive dialogue with other unions who have accepted our offer to come in and talk through it.
“As you have seen with rail… they have put an offer to their members, we are having constructive dialogue with the nurses’ unions and all the other healthcare unions and I would urge the junior doctors to follow suit, and accept the government’s offer to come in and have talks, the other unions have done that and we are making progress.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay added that it is “incredibly disappointing” that the BMA has declined to enter formal pay negotiations on the conditions that strike action is paused.
He said: “I hugely value the hard work of junior doctors and urge unions to come to the negotiating table and cancel strikes which risk patient safety and impact efforts to tackle the backlog. I want to find a fair settlement which recognises the crucial role of junior doctors and the wider economic pressures facing the UK.
“I’ve been having constructive and meaningful talks with unions representing nurses, ambulance workers and other non-medical staff, which have agreed to pause strike action, and negotiations will continue this week.
“We have been working closely with NHS England on contingency plans to help protect patient safety during strikes, prioritising emergency, urgent and critical care – but there will inevitably be some disruption for patients.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Rishi Sunak has learned nothing from his failed approach to strikes in the NHS, which have already led to 140,000 cancelled operations and appointments.
“He’s repeating the same mistakes again by refusing to negotiate with junior doctors, the very doctors who represent the future of the NHS. Patients won’t forgive Rishi Sunak for not even trying to stop these strikes going ahead, when they could be catastrophic for patient safety.”