Doctors and nurses could be forced to work during strikes under the government's plan to expand the minimum service level regulations to the health sector.
Staffing levels during strike days are currently negotiated by employers and trade unions, with the latter exempting some staff from industrial actions according to agreements known as "derogations."
The government now plans to mandate normal levels of care during strike days for in-patients already receiving hospital care, existing patients requiring urgent elective treatment or assessment, and new patients presenting to hospitals that require unplanned assessment, diagnostics and/or treatment in hospitals in England, Wales, and Scotland.
The DHSC said 22 critical incidents were declared due to industrial action.
"In [two] instances, some critical care patients and gynaecology patients had to be moved to other hospitals due to insufficient staffing numbers. Some urgent cancer surgery and chemotherapy appointments had to be rescheduled and some urgent surgery on trauma patients could not go ahead, the department said.
BMA: We Have Maintained Minimum Staffing LevelsIn response to the government's announcement, professor Phil Banfield, chair of BMA council, said in a statement, “If this government was serious about patient safety, it would not have deliberately run down the health service over the past ten years, with the terrible, adverse effects that austerity has had on the health of the nation every day."
Mr. Banfield said the BMA has "been clear that any strike action taken by members preserves minimum levels of staffing to ensure patient safety.
"We have always maintained that consultants and junior doctors together, will never stage a full walk out and we have been clear that we are not planning to do so, with urgent and emergency care continuing to run. It is disingenuous for the secretary of state [Steve Barclay] to say otherwise," he said.
Asked about the proposal on Tuesday, Dr. Vishal Sharma, the chairman of the BMA’s consultants’ committee, told BBC Radio 4’s "Today" programme that the government should be "focusing on addressing the core problems that have led to people striking in the first place.”
Strikes “happened because the NHS staff across the whole sector are really demoralised, they’re really burnt out and they’ve been forced into taking strike action," he said.
He also said the BMA had “absolutely ensured that the staffing level in no hospital would fall below what it does on Christmas Day, or indeed probably on a bank holiday, so it is a safe level of service that we are providing.”
The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, which became law on July 20, gives the government the power to make regulations on the level of service required during strikes in service sectors including health, fire and rescue, education, transport, nuclear, and border security.
Earlier this year, the government launched consultations on requiring minimum serve levels in ambulance services, rail services, fire and rescue services, and border security.
First Joint StrikeOn Wednesday, junior doctors joined their consultant colleagues for the first time, leaving the NHS with “Christmas Day” level of staffing.
They will join forces again next month during the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
The BMA previously said both junior doctors and consultants have seen their salaries falling “by more than a third in real terms over the past 15 years” while the NHS is “hugely understaffed and under-resourced.”
Junior doctors are demanding a “full pay restoration,” calling on ministers to draw up a plan to restore their pay to the 2008 level in real terms over the coming years.
Consultants, who earn an average £143,100 a year before tax, are not demanding a 35 percent pay rise, but they are seeking an “above inflationary pay award for 2023-24” and an overhaul of the pay review body for doctors’ and dentists,’ which the union has accused of being “broken and rigged.”
Ministers have so far refused to reopen talks about this year's pay deal, insisting their previous offer is final.