Forcing some medical staff to work through industrial action under new anti-strike laws could end up harming patient care, hospital trust leaders have said, as ministers claimed their new measures would keep public services running over Christmas.
NHS Providers, which represents hospital, mental health and ambulance trusts, said there was a significant risk it would damage relationships between staff and employers that are already very challenged, in a way that could affect patients.
In a submission to the consultation on minimum service levels in hospitals, it said: “Our key concern is that rather than strengthening services as intended, the legislation proposed would worsen relationships between employers and staff, and between trusts and local union representatives to the longer-term detriment of patient care.”
NHS Providers also highlighted the government’s own assessments showing it would be more financially costly than alternatives. Its verdict was published as the government set out guidance to employers on how to issue notices to staff under its new legislation.
The TUC, the organising body for trade unions, said the laws were “designed to escalate disputes – not resolve them”. It said the new guidance along with a statutory code of practice “makes an already dire piece of legislation even worse” by trying to wrap unions and employers in red tape.
The government has already laid regulations for minimum service levels in rail, the ambulance service and border security, which will come into force by the end of the year.
It follows the introduction of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act this year, which faced fierce criticism from trade unions as unworkable and a threat to the right to strike.
In rail, minimum staffing levels will be 40% during a strike, while the Border Force minimum levels of service will require staffing at about 70% to 75%.
Under the rules for ambulance services, they will be required to make sure all 999 calls are answered and triaged, and all calls responded to in life-threatening circumstances, or where there is no reasonable clinical alternative assistance at the scene or transport to hospital.
Ministers are also consulting on rules affecting workers in hospitals, schools, universities and fire services.
It means that when workers vote to strike they could still be forced to attend work and sacked if they do not comply, while unions could face hefty fines if they cannot show they have asked certain members to attend work during strike periods.
Paul Nowak, the TUC general secretary, said the measures would only “poison industrial relations and worsen disputes”.
He said: “This draconian legislation represents a brazen attack on the right to strike – they’re unworkable, undemocratic and likely in breach of international law.”
At the same time, ministers are trying to overturn the ban on the use of agency workers during strikes, after the high court said in the summer that the practice was unlawful.
Kevin Hollinrake, a business minister, said: “The ability to strike needs to be balanced with ensuring people continue to have access to essential services.
“Businesses should also not have their freedoms restricted by burdensome regulations that aren’t justified. This is why we are seeking views on removing such unnecessary rules, so businesses are able to decide for themselves what staffing is required.”