Rishi Sunak will hold crunch talks with health leaders in Downing Street on Saturday in a bid to resolve the crisis engulfing the NHS.
More than a quarter of ambulance patients waited more than an hour to be admitted to A&E last week as hospitals face one of their most difficult winters in history, exacerbated by a heavy flu season, a spike in Covid cases, and staff and bed shortages.
And junior doctors have now threatened to strike for three consecutive days in March, which would leave emergency wards short of tens of thousands of staff.
The prime minister is to convene a meeting of the “best minds”, including NHS bosses, senior doctors and private providers, to try to tackle the chaos.
The summit will focus on the crisis in emergency care, which doctors have warned is contributing to as many as 500 deaths a week, and in social care, where a lack of provision is causing a bottleneck for hospitals waiting to discharge patients.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting questioned why Mr Sunak had taken so long to act, commenting that “patients deserve more than a talking shop”.
The proposed 72-hour walkout by junior doctors would be the latest escalation in a series of industrial disputes between health-service staff and the government. Health leaders have called on the government to meet with union leaders in an effort to prevent further disruption.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said it would ballot its 45,000 junior doctors on Monday on whether to take industrial action. Junior doctors have suffered a real-terms pay cut of more than a quarter over the past 15 years, which combined with tough working conditions has pushed them to leave the profession in droves.
“Pay erosion, exhaustion and despair are forcing junior doctors out of the NHS, pushing waiting lists even higher as patients suffer needlessly,” Dr Vivek Trivedi and Dr Robert Laurenson, the co-chairs of the BMA Junior Doctors Committee, said in a statement. “The government’s refusal to address fifteen years of pay erosion has given junior doctors no choice but to ballot for industrial action. If the government won’t fight for our health service, then we will.”
Operations and outpatient appointments are likely to be cancelled in the tens of thousands if the junior doctors vote to strike, while maternity, A&E and intensive care services may also be disrupted. Two days of nursing strikes last month saw 30,000 operations and appointments cancelled.
The BMA said it would give ministers and NHS trusts enough time to prepare for any strike action. But health-service representatives said the threat of mass walkouts without emergency cover was “deeply worrying”.
Miriam Deakin, interim deputy chief executive and director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: “Should junior doctors vote for industrial action, trust leaders will do everything they can to minimise disruption and prioritise the safe delivery of care and services for patients.
“Trust leaders are very concerned about the possibility of prolonged or coordinated strike action by health unions in the coming months. They also understand the factors that have driven junior doctors and other healthcare workers to ballot on industrial action.
“We are reiterating our plea to both the government and union leaders to get around the table and find an agreed solution, including on pay, as soon as possible. Prolonged action is something everyone wants to avoid.”
Union leaders said the government was frustrating attempts to start negotiations, and accused Steve Barclay, the health secretary, of ignoring invitations to meet with representatives of junior doctors.
On Friday, during a visit to Watford General Hospital, the health secretary said he was “keen to have dialogue” with the nursing union, but did not directly respond to questions about whether he would accept its latest compromise of a 10 per cent pay rise.
Mr Barclay spoke with doctors at the hospital’s A&E department during a tour with journalists, before speaking to patients privately.
Junior doctors – those who are qualified but in training – have not been on strike since 2016, when they walked out for the first time in history over a government move to increase their hours without an increase in pay. In a 2018 settlement, junior doctors agreed to an 8.2 per cent pay rise over four years.
The NHS pay review this year did not offer junior doctors an increase on this deal, leading the BMA to complain that the pressures of the pandemic coupled with soaring inflation warranted a new settlement.
The BMA echoed the complaints of NHS workers who have recently gone on strike.
Nurses, who took the historic decision to strike for two days in December and will walk out again later this month, have asked for a pay increase of five percentage points above inflation in order to remedy years of real-terms cuts.
Paramedics and other ambulance workers, who also walked out for two days last month and are set to do so again in the coming weeks, are similarly demanding above-inflation pay rises.
The latest strike threat comes as Mr Sunak prepares to introduce legislation that would enforce minimum service levels in the health service as well as in five other key sectors – a move that the unions are preparing to challenge in court.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “As the prime minister made clear this week, easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS is one of his key promises.
“That’s why we’re bringing together the best minds from the health and care sectors to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges, such as delayed discharge and emergency care.
“We want to correct the unwarranted variation in NHS performance between local areas, because no matter where you live, you should be able to access quality healthcare.”