NHS consultants are prepared for a “war of attrition” with the Government stretching into the winter if pay talks stall, a union official has warned, as senior doctors began a 48-hour walkout over pay on Thursday.
Dr Kevin O’Kane, the London regional council chair at the British Medical Association (BMA), told the Standard that doctors were “in it for the long haul” as they began a second round of strike action in hospitals across the country at 7am.
His warning came as the BMA announced plans for a three-day walkout beginning on October 2, 3 and 4, raising the prospect of another winter of discontent in the NHS.
The strike will last until 7am on Saturday but consultants will still provide “Christmas Day cover”, meaning emergency care will be provided.
Dr Chris Streather, medical director for the NHS in London, warned of major disruption to services in the capital with thousands of operations and procedures expected to be cancelled. Consultants are the most senior staff working in the NHS – meaning no other clinicians can cover for them.
The BMA is seeking a pay rise to correct a real-terms fall in income since 2008, but the union has not demanded a specific figure for consultants.
Dr O’Kane said that union officials had not met with ministers to discuss pay since March, claiming that the Government had “categorically not tried to reach out to us through any channels”.
“We are in this for the long haul. Doctors are among the most resilient people on the planet. If this government decides that it wants a war of attrition then we are ready for it, and losing two days’ salary a month isn’t going to bother us.”
He added: “I did not train to take strike action, I’m doing this because my salary has been cut by 35 per cent since 2008. The country simply can’t function with fewer doctors.”
Dr Vishal Sharma, the BMA consultants committee chairman, said last month that a 12.4 per cent pay increase accepted by junior doctors in Scotland would be enough to call off strikes by consultants in England.
But Health Secretary Steve Barclay on Friday insisted that the 6 per cent pay rise offered to NHS doctors is “extremely fair” and told the Telegraph that consultants’ demands were “not feasible” and “not realistic”.
Asked whether consultants would accept a similar deal to that offered in Scotland, Dr O’Kane said: “What the deal in Scotland shows is that when politicians negotiate with doctors, a deal can be struck. We have not asked for a specific figure for our pay rise, we just want our pay restored and we want the pay review body to be genuinely independent. At the moment it is not.
“We are utterly flexible and happy to meet with the Government. It is not too late to prevent future strikes, this is the Prime Minister’s fault.”
Elsewhere, Dr O’Kane called for NHS trust leaders to stop taking a “both sides” approach and privately urge the Government to negotiate with the union.
“Trust leaders regularly call for ‘both sides to get around the table’. But we have been clear throughout that we are happy to meet with the Government, they are the ones causing this situation.
“I would love to think that NHS managers are privately urging ministers to negotiate, but I have no evidence to suggest this is happening. It would also be helpful for the Royal Academies to come off the fence and say that there are real problems in the quality of care that NHS clinicians are able to provide.”
More than 839,000 appointments and procedures have been cancelled since industrial action began in the NHS last December.
If the community and mental health figures are included, the total rises to nearly 900,000 – though this will not reflect the overall number of actual cancellations, due to some duplication of data.
A record 7.6 million Britons are currently on a waiting list for NHS treatment, a figure that ministers have admitted could surpass 8 million next year.
Consultants on a 2003 contract earn a starting salary of £88,364 in basic pay, rising to £119,133 after around 19 years, according to the BMA.
The Department of Health and Social Care said that on average, consultants have additional earnings worth around 31 per cent of basic pay, covering “additional programmed activities”, clinical excellence awards and on-call payments, which take total average NHS earnings for 2022/23 to around £127,000.
I did not train to take strike action, I’m doing this because my salary has been cut by 35 per cent since 2008
Dr Kevin O’Kane
Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “I am concerned and disappointed that the BMA has gone ahead with this industrial action which will continue to affect patients and hamper efforts to cut NHS waiting lists.
“I’m aware some consultants cut short their annual leave over the most recent periods of industrial action by the BMA Junior Doctors Committee and I am incredibly grateful to those staff who came forward to help protect patients and services.
“We have accepted the independent pay review body recommendations in full, giving consultants a 6 per cent pay rise which means average NHS earnings for consultants of £134,000, on top of a pension where generous tax changes mean a consultant can retire at age 65 with a pension each year for life of £78,000 a year. This pay award is final and I urge the BMA to call an end to strikes.”