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Doctors and nurses in England could be forced to work during strikes under government plans to introduce minimum service levels to protect patient safety, health secretary Steve Barclay has announced.
Ministers outlined the proposals as consultants were due on Tuesday to embark on a fresh round of industrial action over pay, followed on Wednesday by junior doctors. Wednesday will be the first time they have combined in simultaneous strikes.
The government will hold consultations on regulations that would ensure minimum NHS staffing levels apply to urgent, emergency and time-critical services.
This could cover some hospital staff including doctors and nurses, said the health department, adding that the arrangements could be introduced from next year.
The government’s move comes after it secured parliamentary approval for anti-strike laws that trade unions claim fall short of international legal standards.
The legislation seeks to apply minimum service levels in eight areas of the economy.
At the time the legislation was unveiled in January, the government said it would impose these arrangements on ambulance, fire and rail services.
It added it hoped to reach voluntary agreements for the other five areas covered by the anti-strike laws: education, border security, nuclear decommissioning and other health and transport services.
Barclay said on Tuesday that this week’s “co-ordinated and calculated strike action will create further disruption and misery for patients and NHS colleagues”.
He added that his top priority was to protect patients “and these regulations would provide a safety net for [NHS] trusts and an assurance to the public that vital health services will be there when they need them”.
Barclay said the average junior doctor was this year securing an 8.8 per cent pay rise, while consultants were receiving 6 per cent, “alongside generous reforms to their pensions”.
Almost 900,000 NHS appointments or hospital procedures have had to be rescheduled in England since staff began strikes over pay last December.
Phil Banfield, chair of the BMA council, said the trade union for doctors had been clear that any industrial action taken by members preserved minimum levels of staffing to ensure patient safety.
He added: “We have always maintained that consultants and junior doctors together will never stage a full walkout 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 to say otherwise.”
Banfield accused the government of “attempting to stifle the right for doctors to act collectively and fight for better pay and conditions in their workplace”.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health organisations across England, said the move to impose minimum service levels risked “worsening industrial relations at a time when we need government and unions to get around the table and enter into talks to avert further escalation and disruption to patient care”.
“This legislation, as well as the consultation announced today, doesn’t address any of the issues underlying current strike action, including dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions,” she added.