NHS strike action escalates as junior doctors set March strike dates

Junior doctors in England will walk out for three consecutive days next month, the latest escalation in an unprecedented wave of strikes hitting the NHS, as talks between the government and nurses’ leaders continued in an attempt to end their industrial action.

Announcing that junior doctors would walk out for 72 hours from March 13, the British Medical Association lambasted health secretary Steve Barclay’s “failure to come to the table and negotiate”, leaving them “with no option but to take strike action”.

Barclay held fresh talks with the Royal College of Nursing, which has 465,000 members, on Friday. Ministers privately hope that a deal can be struck with the nursing union in the coming days around a pay offer of just over 5 per cent for the next financial year.

Downing Street believes that a settlement with nurses, who command high public support, could mark the beginning of the end for the industrial unrest that has convulsed Britain for months.

In some positive news for the government in the long-running rail dispute, the TSSA union on Friday accepted a 9 per cent pay and reform package from train operators, bringing to an end a small part of the wider dispute gripping the network.

Members of the union, which represents around 3,000 staff and had already settled with Network Rail, voted to accept a backdated pay rise of 5 per cent for 2022, and a 4 per cent rise for 2023, with more for the lowest paid.

Health leaders warned of the impact that the action by junior doctors would have on an already overstretched NHS. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, noted that when junior doctors had last gone on strike seven years ago, “the numbers of outpatient appointments cancelled hit nearly 300,000”. 

Nearly 40,000 junior doctors backed industrial action in the result of a ballot announced on Monday. Barclay is now set to offer a meeting with the BMA next week while also inviting other health unions for talks, including ambulance workers’ representatives at GMB, Unison and Unite.

However, one government aide said the junior doctors’ demand for a 26 per cent pay rise was simply “not affordable”.

Talks began with nurses earlier this week after an intervention by prime minister Rishi Sunak. The focus on trying to settle the dispute with nurses reflects Downing Street’s belief that if one major public sector pay dispute can be resolved it could create a snowball effect with deals following in other sectors.

“Rishi wants to sort this out,” said one government official. “The nurses are obviously a priority because of the public support for the strike and because there are so many of them.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, which also represents 200,000 nurses, questioned the approach: “It’s hard to see how a dispute involving five unions can be resolved by reaching agreement with just one.” She added that if the government wanted other unions to consider the offer it was negotiating with the RCN, it needed “to come clean about what exactly is on the table. The sooner ministers do that the better.”

One government insider said they were not expecting a “major breakthrough” in the negotiations on nurses’ pay before the weekend. But another person with knowledge of the talks suggested that both sides believed a resolution was within reach.

The growing expectation in the NHS and government is that an offer of between 5 per cent and 6 per cent for the 2023-24 financial year, could be put forward, possibly with an element of backdating to January.

Improved, backdated pay offers for the coming financial year are now likely to be offered across Whitehall as the Treasury confirmed that rises of up to 5 per cent carried only a “low risk” of having an inflationary effect.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union, which represents teachers, was in a stand-off with the government after it refused a request by ministers to continue talks on the condition that strikes were suspended. The union’s general secretary Mary Bousted said there had been no “clear movement” on pay.


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