Junior doctors in England are set to take part in a 72-hour walkout after voting in favour of striking over pay.
This comes as nursing strikes have been paused while talks over pay take place between the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and ministers.
But why are junior doctors striking, could industrial action make current NHS backlogs worse, and could nurses still walkout?
Here’s what we know so far.
When will junior doctors go on strike and how will it work?
Junior doctors – qualified doctors with up to eight years’ experience working as a hospital doctor, or up to three years in general practice – who are members of the British Medical Association (BMA) will take part in a three-day walkout.
There are 71,000 junior doctors in England, which represents about 30 per cent of all doctors, according to 2021 figures supplied by the BMA.
More than 47,600 junior doctors in England were eligible to vote in the BMA’s ballot, with 98 per cent of those who voted in favour of strike action.
Exact dates of the strike have not yet been confirmed, but the BMA said it will take place in March. Employers will be notified in advance of strike dates in order to make arrangements for cover.
BMA guidance during junior doctor strikes says the responsibility to provide safe patient care lies with the employer and that “large numbers” of doctors are expected to strike, so “it must be assumed that there will be none available to work”.
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation – a membership body that supports healthcare leaders and represents health organisations in Great Britain – told FactCheck that junior doctors going on strike has “created major concern” among health leaders across England, but that they “will be planning for these strikes as they have prepared for all strikes to date”.
Why are junior doctors going on strike?
Junior doctors – who typically earn just over £29,000 in their first year of foundation training – are striking over pay and working conditions.
The BMA said junior doctors have had a 26 per cent pay cut since 2008, if inflation was taken into account, with junior doctors “frustrated, in despair and angry” that the government has “refused” to have “any meaningful discussions” about pay, according to Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi, co-chairs of the BMA junior doctors committee.
But Health Secretary Steve Barclay argues that as part of a “multi-year deal” agreed with the BMA in 2019, junior doctors’ pay has increased by a cumulative 8.2 per cent since 2019/20.
The deal agreed to an annual pay uplift of 2 per cent over four years – up until 31 March 2023.
But the BMA said the 2019 framework agreement notes that the review body can still make further pay recommendations on behalf of junior doctors in England, where requested, so junior doctors shouldn’t be excluded from pay increase just because of the deal.
Could junior doctors’ strikes make the NHS backlog worse?
The latest figures for December 2022 show that around 7.2 million people are currently waiting for NHS consultant-led elective treatment.
As FactCheck has previously reported, the last three years have been a particularly acute period for the NHS, but analysis shows performance was worsening even before Covid hit.
By 2019, the number of people waiting more than four hours on a trolley for a proper hospital bed was eight times higher than it had been in 2011, and even the number of people waiting longer than 18 weeks on the elective care waiting list rose nearly threefold between 2011 and 2019.
Rachel Power, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, told FactCheck that is is “difficult to say” what the impact of junior doctors strikes will be on patients, especially as their action “will be on top of that taken by nurses and paramedics”, but that “there is likely to be disruption to services”.
Junior doctors last took industrial action in 2016, with consultants stepping in during strikes and many elective care procedures – which ranges from diagnostic tests and scans, to outpatient care, surgery and cancer treatment – were cancelled.
During the 2016 strikes, NHS Trusts reported that 2,077 inpatient elective procedures were cancelled as a result of the industrial action, and 3,187 day cases cancelled.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed how many elective procedures could be cancelled during the new strikes, it’s likely that some will not go ahead as planned.
Guidance published by the BMA for consultants working during junior doctor strikes said “it is essential that patient safety is maintained” and that “the only feasible way for this to be achieved is for your employer to cancel almost all elective care prior to, during, and after the junior doctors’ action”.
What is happening with nurses strikes?
Nurses who are members of the RCN were set to walkout in England from 1 to 3 March, in what was set to be the biggest strike of this winter’s pay dispute, with half of frontline services affected and previously exempted staff, such as nurses from intensive care units and cancer care, set to take part.
But these strikes have been paused while intensive talks on pay are due to take place on 22 February between the Health Secretary and the union – although they could be resumed if discussions don’t come to a resolution.
Mr Taylor added that although health leaders will work closely with union representatives to minimise patient disruption, it is “clear” that upcoming strike action “will be more disruptive than what we have seen so far”.
He told FactCheck: “For the sake of patients, we urge the government and unions to start talks and reach a compromise imminently, to ensure that the NHS can continue to reach their targets such as cutting down NHS waiting lists. ”