A row erupted on Tuesday night after senior NHS leaders said the joint consultant and junior doctor strike was causing “significant disruption and risk to patients”.
NHS officials warned that the “Christmas Day” level of service provided by medics during the three-day walkout was “insufficient to ensure appropriate levels of patient safety”.
More than a million operations and appointments have been cancelled since industrial action in the NHS began last December, but officials believe the figure is far higher as hospitals are not booking patients in on strike days to save having to reschedule them.
In a letter to the British Medical Association’s (BMA) chair Professor Philip Banfield, NHS leaders warned that they were “becoming increasingly concerned” that industrial action is “impacting our ability to manage individuals who require time-sensitive urgent treatment, for example cardiac, cancer or cardiovascular patients, or women needing urgent caesarean sections”.
“Although we recognise that consultants have been giving six weeks’ notice of industrial action, we are anxious this in itself is not sufficient to appropriately maintain safe care for these patients,” they wrote.
“This is particularly the case when periods of industrial action occur in close proximity - such as during the last month where two of the four weeks have been impacted.”
Responding to the letter, Prof Banfield claimed that “planning failures” by local NHS trusts had made it more difficult to organise a safe strike.
“We have always been open to discussing ways in which together we can maintain patient safety during industrial action, and we communicated this directly to colleagues at NHS England, most recently in a meeting just yesterday.”
He called on NHS England to communicate their concerns directly to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has insisted that talks over pay with the BMA will not be reopened following an offer of 6 per cent to consultants and 8.8 per cent to junior doctors earlier this year.
The BMA is seeking a 35 per cent pay rise for junior doctors to correct a real-terms fall in income since 2008, while consultants are calling for a rise in line with inflation.
BMA consultants have offered to call off strikes for four weeks if ministers agree to talks through the conciliation service Acas.
Dr Vishal Sharma, chair of the BMA consultants committee, has written to Mr Sunak offering to enter negotiations, with Acas facilitating these talks “if necessary”.
But the letter states that if medics do not receive a “credible deal we can put to our members” by November 3, then strike dates will be set for November and December.
Mr Sunak on Tuesday sought to pin the blame for rising NHS waiting lists on the ongoing strike by junior and senior doctors. The latest figures show waiting lists for elective treatment across England have risen from 2.6 million in 2010 to almost 7.7 million.
He told Good Morning Britain that there was “already a backlog” preceding the strikes, adding: “We had stabilised it, it had stopped going up and it was forecast to start going down until industrial action started. That’s the reality of it.”
But a survey of 1,765 adults released by the BMA on Monday showed that around two in five respondents blamed the Government for the increase in waiting lists - almost three times the number who blame striking doctors.
Dr Chris Streather, regional medical director for NHS London, on Monday said that 11 months of strikes by health workers had left the NHS at a “tipping point” and trusts “cannot keep” cancelling planned care to keep emergency services safe.
He told the Standard: “Making sure people are safe on the day is what hits the headlines and we sensibly prioritise that, but it is also our job in the NHS to give a voice to people who are waiting at home that have had their treatment delayed. I’m not sure that either the unions or the Secretary of State are listening to that voice as intently as maybe they should be.”