Unions which fail to provide enough doctors on strike days could be hit with fines of £1million under new laws to stop patients’ lives being put in danger.
Thousands of appointments and operations have been cancelled as junior doctors and consultants stage the first joint strike in NHS history today.
But health chiefs warned the situation is “dangerous” as hospitals scramble to find enough staff to provide basic care.
Downing Street said patients’ safety has been “put at risk” and called on the British Medical Association to “step back” from the industrial action.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced new minimum service laws that will force unions of doctors and nurses to provide a minimum level of cover.
He said: “Relentless walkouts by BMA doctors in training and consultants have led to around 900,000 appointments being cancelled and I’m concerned their uncompromising threat of indefinite, militant action means this number will only keep rising.”
Mr Barclay added: “The BMA or other unions who deliberately breach the service levels would face fines up to a £1million.
“It’s worth reiterating doctors in training have received a fair and reasonable pay rise – as recommended by the independent pay review body.” Mr Barclay accused the BMA of “politically motivated” strike action, with its next round of joint walkouts timed to coincide with the Conservative Party conference in Manchester from October 1.
The new minimum service laws are unlikely to come into force until next year.
Staff will be issued with a “work notice” by employers on what is needed to maintain “necessary and safe levels of service”.
Mr Barclay said the measure is “proportionate” as health unions are resorting to “increasing militancy”.
Consultants launched a 48-hour strike yesterday and junior doctors will walk out for 72 hours from today. Junior doctors have already held 19 days of strike action since March.
Consultants and junior doctors will again join forces for strikes on October 2, 3 and 4. It is the third walkout by consultants and the sixth by junior doctors over pay. The Government has agreed to award consultants 6% and junior doctors an average of 8.8% following recommendations.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation representing trusts, said: “This is likely to be the biggest walkout the NHS has ever seen, will cause serious disruption, and put patients at the highest level of risk in living memory.”
But the BMA criticised the Government’s plans. Dr Vishal Sharma, of the union’s consultants’ committee, said the BMA had “absolutely ensured staffing level in no hospital would fall below what it does on Christmas Day, or indeed probably on a bank holiday, so it is a safe level of service we are providing”.