Up to a quarter of a million appointments and operations could be postponed due to four days of strikes by junior doctors, the NHS Confederation has warned, amid fears over patient safety.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the confederation, said health bosses were more concerned about the impact of the latest walkout – which falls after the Easter bank holiday weekend – than any other strike so far.
Medics in England are preparing to take industrial action from Tuesday in the bitter pay dispute but the British Medical Association said the strikes could still be avoided if the government made a “credible offer”.
Dr McCay told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “In the last junior doctors’ strike, we saw about 175,000 appointments and operations having to be postponed.
“In terms of the disruption that we’re anticipating this time, we reckon it could be up to about a quarter of a million so that is a huge amount of impact for patients up and down the country.”
She added: “What we’re hearing from our members who are health leaders across the whole system is that they are more concerned about this than they have been about any other strike.
“They think that the impact is going to be so significant that this one is likely to have an impact on patient safety and that is a huge concern for every healthcare leader.”
Dr McCay said the disruption could last up to 10 or 11 days, with the strike set between the Easter bank holiday and another weekend.
“What we expect to see is really significantly diminished capacity within the health service with these junior doctors being out,” she said.
Health secretary Steve Barclay has been urged to meet union representatives over the bank holiday weekend in a bid to resolve the issue.
Dr Mike Greenhalgh, deputy co-chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee, told BBC One’s Breakfast show: “It’s hard to negotiate when only one side is doing it and we’re not getting anything back from the government on that front.”
He added: “We’re happy to meet at any time. We would still meet him over the bank holiday weekend before the industrial action next week.
“And if he was to bring a credible offer to us, it could still, even at this late stage, avert action.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has insisted the BMA has to call off the strike for any negotiations to take place.
Dr Greenhalgh apologised to patients who have had operations or appointments cancelled and insisted patient safety would not be put at risk.
“Patient safety was maintained at the last strikes, and it will be in these strikes,” he said
He said of the previous action which lasted for three days: “We met with the NHS employers four times a day.
“There was a mechanism for them to say if they felt that patient safety was being compromised, and we didn’t have a single request for any derogations during that time.”
The BMA has called on the Health Secretary to negotiate to resolve 15 years of “pay erosion”, with junior doctors losing more than 26% of their pay in real terms.
Dr Greenhalgh said: “At the moment, we have over seven million people on waiting lists and the way we get that down is making sure the NHS is properly funded and staffed.
“And part of that is making sure that there’s a fair deal on pay for our members.”
The four days of strikes will come immediately after the Easter bank holiday weekend.
They will run from 6.59am on Tuesday until 6.59am on Saturday April 15.
By Laura Elston, PA