Health Secretary Steve Barclay: We’ll bring in law to ensure cover in doctor strikes

Members of the British Medical Association outside University Hospital Bristol and Weston, amid their dispute with the Government over pay (PA)
Members of the British Medical Association outside University Hospital Bristol and Weston, amid their dispute with the Government over pay (PA)

A law that would require a minimum number of doctors to work during strikes is to be extended to the NHS to tackle union “militancy”, Health Secretary Steve Barclay said on Tuesday.

His comments came as hospital consultants walked out at 7am on Tuesday in a 48-hour protest over pay. They will be joined on Wednesday by junior doctors, who will strike for three days in a major escalation of the dispute with the Government.

Health experts said it was “likely to be the biggest walkout the NHS has ever seen” and would put more patients at risk than any other strike in living memory. It is the first joint strike by consultants and junior doctors in the history of the NHS.

The Government is planning to extend its “minimum service levels”, which passed into law in July, to the NHS, probably from the start of next year. This would require doctors and other NHS staff to provide “Christmas Day cover,” including emergency care and for cancer patients needing treatment.

Mr Barclay said he had decided to act after national leaders of the British Medical Association, the doctors’ union, wrecked previous efforts, agreed on a local basis between hospital chiefs and union representatives, to ensure adequate medical cover during strikes.

Mr Barclay told LBC radio: “Because of the militancy of the national BMA committee, they refused to agree what had been agreed locally. So that makes it very difficult for NHS leaders to plan. It makes it very uncertain for patients. So what we’re putting in place through the consultation is getting the safety net between recognising people’s fair right to strike, but also for time-critical services in hospital, things like chemotherapy, things like dialysis, ensuring that those are protected as minimum service levels.”

However, the move threatens to worsen relations between medics and ministers, according to Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers.

She said: “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.”

Strikes began 10 months ago and further walkouts are planned on October 2-4, coinciding with the Tory party conference.

About 900,000 patient appointments have had to be cancelled since strikes began.

Junior doctors want a pay rise of 35 per cent but have been offered 8.8 per cent. Consultants have been offered six per cent.

BMA chief Professor Phil Banfield said the union already ensured minimum levels of staff and threats that could see individuals sacked if they do not comply with the new laws “feel like a kick in the teeth.”